Saturday, May 28, 2016

Cook Book Book Club, Meeting #3

The Cook Book Book Club got together today to prepare recipes from the James Beard Award winning Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop.
The focus of the book is Chinese home-style cooking, which turned out to be relatively easy to execute once we were able to get our hands on the proper ingredients. Fortunately, we live in a city where exotic ingredients are relatively easy to acquire. I have rapidly become familiar with the layout of the 99 Ranch market in Van Nuys.

We had thirteen women at the table today, which added up to fifteen dishes, plus rice and tea. The daughter of one of our members recently returned from China, of which she said, people basically eat rice with small bits of dishes to flavor it, and when we started going through the cookbook, we realized the portions were too small for everyone to get a taste. We suspended one of our rules for this session and everyone doubled recipes to make sure there would be enough to go around. 

I was able to use my new "summer" dishes, Coastal Breeze Blue from 222 Fifth. I found the dishes a few months ago at HomeGoods, but my initial decision to purchase only eight place-settings was a mistake because we usually have at least 10 people over for dinner on Sundays. With the help of Replacements, Ltd., I got the balance of dishes to make sixteen place-settings.
The pattern has shells and sea horses, and will look very nice with my Rogers Bros. antique flatware pattern called Columbia.

The menu for lunch:
Hot & Sour Soup (vegetarian version) made by Laura Brennan
When I first invited Laura to join the cook book group, she indicated that she didn't do much cooking. She said the Hot & Sour Soup was definitely outside her comfort zone, but she did a great job with it and her son enjoyed it as well.
Slippery Wood Ear Salad with Cilantro made by Nan Cohen
 I'm familiar with Slippery Wood Ear Fungus as ingredient in Hot & Sour Soup, but this salad, with its very spicy chile, did awaken the mouth for the rest of the meal.
Northern Stye Boiled Dumplings with Ginger Pork Filling in Schuanese Chili Oil sauce made by Catherine Fleming
Poor Catherine had a spill on her way to the house, and I can only imagine how her car must smell with the sauce sloshing out of the dish, but the dumplings were delicious.
Xian Pot-Sticker Dumplings made by Lisa Klink    
Tuzi's Slow-Cooked Ribs with Red Fermented Tofu made by Christine Valada
On a day when there was a lot of last-minute finishing going on in my kitchen, the Slow-Cooked Ribs were finishing up in the oven and only needed to be put on a platter at the last minute.
Stir-Fried Garlic Stems with Bacon made by Mary De Longis
Mary was kind enough to do both the bacon version and the vegan mushroom version of the Stir-Fried Garlic Stems. Most of us enjoyed both versions, but it was especially nice for our resident vegetarian to have a version she could eat. The garlic stems look a lot like string beans.
Stir-Fried Garlic Stems with Mushrooms by Mary De Longis
Schuanese Dry-Fried Green Beans (vegetarian version) made by T Valada-Viars
Smoky Eggplant with Garlic made by Michelle Heinig Resnick
Pock-Marked Old Woman's Tofu made by Liz Mortensen
Bear's Paw Tofu made by Julia Roberts
Chinese Broccoli in Ginger Sauce made by Sharon Baker
Spinach in Ginger Sauce made by Liz Mortensen (foreground)
Cold Chicken with Spicy Schuanese Sauce made by Laurie Perry
Mussels with Black Bean Sauce made by Amie Brockway-Metcalf
Laurie Perry was so happy with the Cold Chicken with spicy Schuanese Sauce, she's planning to make it a staple for picnics at the Hollywood Bowl. It was very refreshing and is a good choice for a summer meal.

I was delighted that Amie decided to make the Mussels with Black Bean Sauce. I love mussels, but the cleaning takes such a long time. She told us that her vendor provides them already scrubbed. They were terrific and I would have been happy to make a whole meal of them.

We had two tofu dishes, plus fermented tofu was used to flavor the ribs. The Pock-Marked Old Woman's Tofu contained fermented black beans while the Bear's Paw Tofu was fried. The Pock-Marked Tofu got better and better as we sampled leftovers after lunch was over. Lunch was actually heavy on vegetarian dishes with the string beans, broccoli, spinach, and eggplant.

All of us agreed that it was a particularly good cookbook. I am likely to try more of the recipes because it makes Chinese cooking very accessible and the portions are good for the three or four of us on a weeknight.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Cook Book Book Club, Meeting #1

A few months ago, I saw an article that inspired me to suggest to a group of my friends that we try a different kind of book club, on that involved cook books and cooking. Yesterday, a dozen of us gathered for our first meeting.
Several suggestions were made for the first cook book, and we wound up going with Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I made an executive decision that people who had either The Classic Italian Cook Book or More Classic Italian Cooking could use those as well, since the more recent Essentials has all the recipes from the first two and another 50 new recipes.

I set up a group on Facebook to chose a date for our meeting and to keep track of who was making what, so no two people made the same dish. We met at my home because I offered it and I've got a dining table that can sit 18 or 20, if we get cozy, and a large kitchen that would allow people to finish dishes or reheat if necessary. (I was teasingly told that my 4 burner Viking range is not big enough, because we needed 6 burners at one point.)

There were a few guidelines: make the dish exactly as written and only for the number of people indicated. In other words, don't adjust the recipe based on the number of people coming for lunch and don't change the ingredients. (Confession: keeping to Marcella's low garlic quota was difficult for those of us who love garlic.) Keeping the volume of the dish to that in the book (most are for 4-6 people) seemed a little counter-intuitive, but everyone left the table feeling more than satisfied. Even a taste of each dish adds up quickly, and there were a total of 14 recipes made by 12 people. There were even some leftovers because there was so much food.

It is fortunate that so many Italian dishes do not have to be piping hot when eaten, because it is impossible to get that many people to arrive at the same time and get finishing touches on everything. We will have to keep that in mind for future meetings.

I initially thought about setting up the food as a buffet, but I think it worked better for us to sit down and pass a few dishes at a time. The cook was then asked to talk about making the dish and give any suggestions they might have about adjustments. The discussion led us to realize how many of the dishes used sage, which some folks only associate with making turkey. Another ingredient which surprised many people was butter (much more common in the north of Italy where Marcella was from than in the south) and a lot of it was used, but most of us agreed that it could easily be replaced with olive oil to make a vegan dish.

Bread: Focaccia with Fresh Rosemary and Salt (page 618-620) made by yours truly.
I fell in love with focaccia when I visited Italy in 1985. The small town I was in had a bakery which only made focaccia two days a week. It was worth the wait. No one in the States had heard of focaccia (now they don't pronounce it correctly most of the time) and it rarely has the taste or texture of the bread I got in Vernasca. Everyone enjoyed Marcella's recipe, but I think the one I had from the Frugal Gourmet was better.

Soup Course: Minestrone alla Romagnola (page 84) made by Lisa Klink.
Starting the meal off with soup was a great choice on a day threatening rain. It was delicious and filling, even in small portions. The recipe called for beef broth, but I would probably opt for chicken or vegetable broth if I make it because of the number of people I know--myself included--who do not eat beef.

Pasta Course: Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi (page 262) with Butter and Sage Sauce (page 192) made by Catherine Fleming
and Cavatelli (fresh pasta recipe on page 128) with Spinach Sauteed with Olive Oil and Garlic (page 526) used as a sauce made by T Valada-Viars.

Catherine's Gnocchi were pretty much perfect: light and uniformly shaped. The butter sage sauce was wonderful. It is my favorite sauce for butternut squash ravioli. The recipe called for prosciutto, which I knew Catherine used, but the flavor was so mild, it could probably be left out so a vegetarian could eat it.

My sister T's cavatelli were an attempt to recreate a dish we remember our grandmother making on the kitchen table. I always think of my grandmother when I smell flour and eggs. She had a large family (six children, plus a mother-in-law in residence) and there were usually spouses, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, and cousins running in and out of the house on holidays and in the summer. She always seemed to be in the kitchen. T remembered the cavatelli being shaped with the thumb, but I remember three fingers being used to thin and shape the dough. That seemed to work better. While I was sure that the book had a recipe for cavatelli, it did not. Using the basic pasta recipe made for a somewhat heavy dough. I just found a recipe for cavatelli that might make a lighter product.

We questioned the wisdom of steaming the fresh spinach before adding it to the oil and garlic, because it is less time and dish consuming to simply allow the spinach to steam once it is in the oil and garlic. It was a really nice, homey dish.

Fish Course: Baked Fillet of Sole with Tomato, Oregano, and Hot Pepper (page 309) made by me
served with Gratin of Artichokes, Potatoes, and Onions (page 458) made by Mary De Longis
and Gratineed Cauliflower with Bechamel Sauce made by Kerry Glover.
The sole was fairly easy to acquire at the local Costco. The tomato sauce is made first, using onions, garlic, canned plum tomatoes, capers, and fresh oregano. I was afraid that our cold weather had done in my fresh oregano, but I managed to find some in one of my pots. After the sauce is made, the sole is dipped in the sauce and arranged in a baking dish. It was a little difficult to understand the instructions for arranging the sole, so I wound up folding the pieces in half. Then the sauce is poured over all and the dish goes into a very hot oven. The instructions said it was 5 minutes at 450 degrees. It took almost 15 minutes before it was actually cooked. Although it sat on the table under foil for a while, when it came time to serve it, the fish was not overcooked at all.

Mary's artichoke and potato dish was good, but she said that she did not know how to properly trim the artichokes. Everyone agreed that she should just try using the frozen artichokes from Trader Joe's the next time. It was, none-the-less, a really good side dish.

The Poultry Course: Oven-Roasted Chicken with Garlic and Rosemary (page 328) made by Sharon Baker
and Chicken Fricassee with Red Cabbage (page 333) made by Laurie Perry
and Sauteed Chicken Livers with Sage and White Wine (page 441) made by Mary De Longis.
We served the chicken dishes with Pan-Roasted Potatoes with Anchovies, Genoa Style (page 524) made by Liz Mortensen and Breaded Eggplant Cutlets (page 496) with Piquant Green Sauce (page 42) made by Maria Elena Rodriquez. Sadly, I do not have photographs of either dish, since the arrived at table after we sat down. Fortunately, Liz did photograph her potatoes (below.)
The roast chicken was melt in your mouth delicious. Sharon said she used the required vegetable oil, even though we all agreed that olive oil would be just fine. She also basted the chicken every 15 minutes throughout the cooking. That's probably something she would not do under most circumstances. The fricassee was delicious and did not smell of cabbage at all. Laurie was really pleased with the flavor available from five ingredients and the ease at which the dish came together.

Mary's chicken livers were so delicious. I might consider making them and throwing them into the food processor to make a spreadable chopped liver. They would probably make a good appetizer that way, spread on bread or toast.

I am a huge eggplant fan, so Maria's eggplant was a big hit with me. She produced a beautiful platter of Milanese-style cutlets and the salsa verde was a lovely touch. I kept a few leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

Salad Course: Orange and Cucumber Salad (page 552) made by Laura Brennan.
I invited Laura to join us after we had brunch together a few weeks ago. She was dubious of her cooking skills, but she was game to give it a try with a simple recipe. Her dish was made special by the oranges which came from her own trees (as was the lemon juice used in the dressing for the salad.) Putting the salad course at the end of the main meal before dessert as a palate cleanser is common in Europe and worked very well for us. Laura felt inspired by the whole experience and now feels more confident to try other recipes in the book. Yay, Laura.

Dessert Course: Diplomatico (page 577) made by Nan Cohen.
The dish starts with pre-made pound cake and has a lovely mousse filling. It does require a bit of advance work, since the cake is dipped in rum and coffee and needs to ripen. The recipe is a great do-ahead because it can be made up to a week in advance and kept in the refrigerator.

Liz just reminded me of another rule: chose a recipe without regard to allergies or preferences of other people attending. There will always be food that most people can or will eat and no one has to eat every offering to feel ful. My sister adds that it is important to identify any potential allergens when serving the food (for example peanuts and shellfish) so those with allergies can avoid them. We did try to have signs identifying the recipe for each dish (which is vital in a buffet, less important when dishes are passed at the table but still helpful.)

We are now in the process of choosing our next book, because we were a dozen happy women at the end of the meal.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

In Search of Hatch Chiles

Hatch Chile Bushel Boxes
 Ever since my friend Melinda Snodgrass has been spending more time in Los Angeles again, I've listened to her bemoan the fact that it is impossible to find Hatch green chiles in any form out here. Apparently, it is a necessary food group in New Mexico. The Hatch green chile salsa I found at Trader Joe's was a failure.
Fresh Green Hatch Chiles
A few weeks ago, I saw an article from the L.A. Times announcing that the annual roasting of Hatch chiles would be occurring at grocery stores all over the county for a few short weeks. I was surprised, but at that point my husband said, oh, yeah, they do that every year at a nearby Alberton's (not on the first list I saw, but now it says August 29.) The chiles are brought in from the area of New Mexico where they are grown (like champagne or Parmesan cheese, the location of origin is very important: other variations of green chile peppers do not taste the same) and purchase can be made by the bushel (or smaller amounts, it turns out.)

 The boxes of chiles are opened into a drum roaster, where the chiles are continuously turned until charred all over. The green chiles need to be charred, stemmed, peeled, and seeded before they are used. Freezing them after they are charred makes the peeling of the outer skin much easier (I've read and been told.)
Roasted Hatch Chiles
So last week I went to the Gelson's in La Canada-Flintridge that was supposed to be holding a Hatch chile event. The listing was incorrect, and the other places in the article were terra incognito to me. Fortunately, I did ask at the information desk at the grocery and they told me that it would happen this Saturday instead.
Hawking Hatch Chiles
The stifling heat almost discouraged me. It was 85 degrees when I left the house at 9:45 this morning, and it felt much hotter.

The drive was uneventful, and I had the benefit of knowing where I was going this time. When I pulled into the parking lot, a tent and roasting area were set up outside the entrance to the Gelson's. The smell of roasting chiles perfumed the air.
Shoppers ISO Hatch Chiles

The chiles were available fresh, roasted, dried, ground, and in salsas. There were cookbooks available for sale and samples of food using both the mild and the hot chiles. I'm a coward, I only tried the mild offerings and I still had the taste in my mouth when I got home.
Hatch Chiles in a Roasting Drum
 I'm not complaining, especially because the potato salad I tried was really good. They also had chile chocolate chip cookies. My sister would like that.
Chocolate Chip Hatch Chile Cookies
When I saw how large a full bushel of the roasted chiles was, I knew I did not have enough room in my freezer for that many.
Worker with a Box of Roasted Hatch Chiles
Plus, I planned to buy some for Melinda's freezer as well, and I knew she'd want the hot chiles. Fortunately, they were selling smaller quantities  of the chiles in the kind of containers in which stores sell roasted chickens. Weighing a little less than 3 pounds each, they were a more manageable size.
Container of Hatch Chiles--Hot
 I gave Melinda a call to confirm what she wanted and told her I'd put the chiles in freezer bags in smaller quantities. She asked for a container of hot and a container of mild. I bought a second container of the mild for myself.

When I got home, I found that four or five chiles would store in a single layer of a quart freezer bag. Each store container filled five or six quart bags and they are now freezing flat. I'll move them out to Melinda's the next time I go check her mail.
Roasted Chiles Ready for Peeling
Now I'm trying to figure out how many chiles to add to a vinaigrette to make a warm potato salad.

Check out the article from the L.A. Times (above) if you are interested in purchasing Hatch chiles. They will be available for about a month at selected grocery stores. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Special Meal in San Diego

There are years when I get to San Diego more than once, and it is always a welcomed trip, but there is always the annual trek for San Diego Comic-con International, which was slightly earlier in the summer than usual this year. Consequently, unlike most years, my birthday was not involved.

Also different than previous years, neither tea nor crab cakes were part of any meal. I did have the unexpected pleasure of meeting Alton Brown, who had an invitation to my favorite party of the convention, and finally getting a chance to eat at Top Chef Richard Blais' restaurant in San Diego, Juniper and Ivy.

My husband saw Alton hiding under a baseball cap when he entered the party area. Len called me over and we introduced ourselves to one of our favorite Food Network personalities. When Len started to explain who he was, Alton said "You don't have to do that. I know who you are." Len was tickled pink. We had a very pleasant conversation, eventually interrupted by the arrival of William Shatner, who must know Alton from a brief stint as the "Chairman" of an early edition of the U.S. version of Iron Chef. Before that happened, I mentioned that I had been following Richard Blais' tweets from Comic-con and that I hoped to get a chance to try his restaurant. Alton endorsed the choice, saying he had had an excellent dinner there the night before.
Alton Brown the night we saw him at the TV Academy several years ago.
So when I ran into our friend Gillian Horvath (very jealous that I had met Alton Brown) and she said she was looking for a way to kill some time before heading back to L.A. on Sunday night, I suggested we do dinner at Juniper and Ivy. She agreed, and I made reservations for us. We took a taxi rather than getting a car out and fighting for parking, but on a good day we might have been able to walk the distance from the harbor hotels.

The restaurant is located on the edge of San Diego's Little Italy, almost underneath the Freeway. The name comes from the nearby cross-streets, although neither factors into the actual address of the building (2228 Kettner.) The restaurant is large--something like 300 seats--and even on a Sunday night it is crowded and loud. (There is some outdoor seating, but it was so hot we weren't interested in being outside where conversation would have been interrupted by the jets coming in for a landing at the nearby airport.) I was glad I made a reservation.

The menu is pretty diverse, and, like many restaurants these days, encourages sharing. The small plates go nicely with Len's reduced appetite.

The restaurant is famous for its buttermilk biscuit with smoked butter. We ordered one to share, but I wish we had ordered a second. It was delicious, and the presentation is worth the experience. The cast-iron baking dish is delivered in a cloche, and when it opens, the most delicious smoke escapes. A still photograph cannot do this justice, so check out the Vine of it here.
Buttermilk Biscuit with Smoked Butter
I know that Gillian ordered the poke as an appetizer, but I forgot to photograph that. She ordered the bone marrow as her main course, which arrived served on a wooden platter.
Bone Marrow with Spaetzle
Sadly, it did not come with a marrow spoon (only someone like Gillian or me who collects antique silver would even know of such an implement these days) which made it a little difficult to get to the marrow. We finally got a server to find a demitasse spoon, which made an acceptable alternative. Gillian was very happy with her choice and I enjoyed a sampling of the spaetzle.

I decided to try the Kurobuta pork short rib with fig barbeque sauce on creamed corn. If this is what heritage pork tastes like, I don't know why we've allowed selective breeding to eliminate fat from our pigs. It was melt-in-your-mouth wonderful. Kurobuta is as highly prized in Japan as Kobe beef, and I can understand why.
Kurobuta Pork Short Rib
If you are looking for this kind of pork, look for meat from Berkshire Black hogs. (Snake River Farms is a source.)

Len went with a lobster mushroom pasta for his main course, which he thoroughly enjoyed (after his initial concern that it might have actual lobster in it.)
Pasta with Lobster Mushrooms
I don't usually go for dessert these days, but Gillian convinced me to try the melon sorbet, which was a nice way to close out dinner.
Melon Sorbet
If you happen to like chocolate or Hostess, the menu has a dessert called "Yodel," which may be exactly what you are looking for.

I am pretty sure I can convince Len to go to Juniper and Ivy the next time we are in San Diego. I have no doubt that I'd be able to get Gillian to go with me if he won't.

Richard Blais has a cookbook, Try This at Home, but it doesn't include a recipe for those biscuits. Sniff.