Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Death by Caramel - Salted Caramel Tart

I nearly killed myself with caramel.

Perhaps that's a bit dramatic, but I need you to understand the severity of the situation. Caramel is not easy. It is treacherous. It took three attempts to get this tart right. THREE! By the end of it, I was so sick of looking at and smelling caramel, I was barely tempted to taste it. I was tired, no, exhausted, and so very. very. done with caramel. Was it worth it? Well. It's tough to say. I'm still having arm spasms from stirring.

Again with the dramatics.

My niece and I had discussed my Sister's love of caramel. I thought this tart would be just the thing for her birthday, served with a fluffy cloud of only slightly sweetened, fresh whipped cream.

So there I was at the stove, stirring away. About 10 minutes into the first batch, I noticed the caramel was turning an unexpected and disturbing shade of grey. I leaned in to examine it closer and removed the spoon: the spoon had half dissolved into the caramel mixture! I had thought it was silicon, but in actuality, it was plastic. Batch discarded.

I prepped the caramel once more. Wooden spoon in hand, stirring and stirring, watching carefully so as not to burn it. The recipe instructions said to bring the caramel to a distinctly dark color. I admit, I was skeptical: the picture looked so dark. I could have sworn the caramel shown was burnt, but, "have courage!" the recipe instructed. And so I did. I brought it to a dark color...and tasted it.

Burnt. Completely.

Batch discarded.

And so, onto the third batch, about an hour in at this point. Recipe for caramel committed to memory. Screw courage: at this point, I just wanted caramel that was neither burnt nor toxic.

And it worked. The third batch was perfect.

I'm told that the tart was good. Rich and buttery, as caramel should be. I had a bite. But the process had the unintended consequence of making me decidedly anti-caramel. But at the end of it, the tart had been completely devoured. And I guess, that's about as much of a recommendation as I can give for this recipe.

In the future, I will trust my own instincts when it comes to a recipe, and I will stick with silicon or wood when cooking candy.

So, if attempting this one, heed my warnings. Screw courage, trust your taste, and if all else fails, remember, caramel is tricky. It's not your fault.

Salted Caramel Tart
from the cookbook FAT by Jennifer McLagan

For the tart dough:

2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of fine sea salt
2/3 cup cold unsalted butter, diced
1 large egg
1/3 cup superfine sugar

For the caramel:

1 1/4 cups superfine sugar
1/2 cup salted butter, diced
1 cup whipping cream
lightly whipped cream, for serving

Combine the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles very coarse bread crumbs. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.

In another bowl, whisk together the egg and sugar. Pour the egg mixture over the flour-butter mixture and mix with a fork. Squeeze a bit of the mixture between your fingers. If it holds together, transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; if not, add a couple of teaspoons of ice water and test again. Knead gently and form into a ball, divide the pastry in half, and flatten into 2 disks. Wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before using.

Roll out the pastry on a floured surface and line a 9-inch or 9 1/2-inch (23-cm or 24-cm) tart pan. Prick the base of the tart with a fork and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375. Place the tart shell on a baking sheet. Line the tart with parchment paper and fill it with dried beans. Bake until the pastry is just set, about 15 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and continue to cook until the pastry is a dark golden color, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the tart to a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

Combine the sugar and butter in a deep, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir to mix and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter and sugar caramelize, 10 to 15 minutes. The sugar and butter will go through several stages. First it will look like a flour-butter roux, then it will appear curdled, and then the butter will leak out of the sugar mixture. Don’t worry: It will all come together in the end.

While the caramel is cooking, pour the cream into a saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Keep stirring the butter-sugar mixture, watching carefully as it begins to caramelize and remembering that the heat in the pan will continue to cook the caramel once it is removed from the burner. You want a rich, dark caramel color, but you don’t want to burn the mixture, which will give it a bitter taste. When the caramel reaches the right color, remove the pan from the heat and slowly and carefully pour in the cream; the mixture will bubble and spit. When the caramel stops bubbling, return it to low heat and cook for 5 minutes, stirring to dissolve the caramel in the cream. Remove the pan from the heat and let the caramel cool for 10 minutes. Slowly pour the cooled caramel into the baked pastry shell and chill the tart for at least 2 hours.

This tart is easier to cut when it is chilled. Remove the tart from the pan and, using a wet knife, cut it into wedges. Serve the tart at room temperature, however, for maximum flavor, with a dollop of whipped cream.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Of Hot Tubs and Road Trips - Simple Lentil Salad

I've been in a bit of a cooking funk lately. I can't seem to get myself to the market very often, and when I do, I come home missing an ingredient or two, and then can't force myself out again to retrieve them. Meals have mostly been eaten out or foisted upon me by friends with leftovers to spare. I have to admit, I'm actually enjoying the break. More time for other things, such as a hot tub and sauna night at Piedmont Springs in Oakland. Delightful! Living in an apartment building has it's disadvantages. Lack of hot tub is one of them, so it's very refreshing to know that tucked away on Piedmont Avenue, there is a small oasis of outdoor, private redwood tubs which can be yours for one hour, for about the price of two cocktails.

It's a bargain. Add a few minutes in the sauna, and I'm a happy camper. Maybe someday I'll spring for the massage as well.

But I have a confession. I have been spoiled when it comes to hot tubs. In college, my roommate Beth and I lucked out with a ridiculously perfect house, 4 blocks from school, complete with wrap-around deck and hot tub. In case you were wondering: studying for finals is not too strenuous when up to your neck in 103 degree water. It is also rather easy for the party to come to you, when you are the gate-keeper of a hot tub. Party attendance was always more than we expected, but our hot tub space was always reserved.

After college, when I moved in with my friend Ilsa, I lucked out once again, with a large redwood hot tub in our yard in Berkeley. I wish I could say I'd enjoyed that tub more, but our hot tub fun was cut short when we found a family of opossums living under said tub. Let me tell you, those things are mean as hell. They hiss! Sitting up to your neck in 103 degree water is considerably less relaxing when being circled by hissing opossums.

Luckily, there are no rodents of unusual size (or regular size for that matter) at Piedmont Springs. Nor are there gangs of rowdy college kids. Just pure, private relaxation in the middle of the city. Happiness. Sheer happiness.

So now, to extend my relaxed, meditative state, I'm off on a road trip up North for my Sister's 40th birthday. We'll see if this cooking funk continues. I'm happy to trade my tiny kitchen for the open road, a Superbird Sandwich from Grenzellas on I5, all of my favorite restaurants in Ashland, Oregon, and, what is sure to be some superb family cooking. Cooking for 14 people is always a bit of a challenge. I suspect we'll be combining forces.

Until I'm back, I leave you with a single, simple recipe. For an evening when cooking needs to be minimal, without fuss. There's nothing more satisfying than a simple lentil salad. And Alice Waters has the best simple recipe I know. A few tweaks here and there to make it your own, you can throw in just about anything you have on hand. It's hard to ruin lentil salad, and the red wine vinaigrette is so perfect on this. It's what to cook when you don't want to cook.

Lentil Salad

adapted from Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food

1 cup lentils, sorted and rinsed (Alice recommends French Green or Black Beluga, I had brown lentils on hand and they worked just fine.)
1/2 cup carrot, diced
1/2 cup potatoes, diced
1/2 lb spinach
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
salt & fresh-ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 finely diced shallots
3 tablespoons chopped parsley

Bring the lentils to boil in about 3 inches of boiling water. Simmer and cook until tender, it should take about 30 minutes. Drain, and reserve about 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid. Set liquid and lentils aside.

Heat about 1 tbsp of olive oil in a pan, and saute the shallots, carrots, and potatoes until tender. Add the spinach to wilt. Stir in the parsley and remove from heat.

Toss the lentils and vegetables together with red wine vinegar, salt & pepper and the 2 remaining tablespoons of olive oil. If the lentils seem dry, add a bit of the cooking liquid. Serve room temperature or cold.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Guest Post by Pearl

My six year old niece, Pearl, has asked that her photo of her dinner be included on the blog. I am more than happy to oblige her. I happen to know that she is an excellent cook: masterfully arranging chocolate chips in cookies, raspberries in raspberry tarts, eating chocolate and licking spatulas clean.

I can tell you that her favorite meal is salmon sushi. She prefers it without rice. She also very much enjoyed the Pina Colada's (virgin) I made in Hawaii, but she prefers them without too much fresh pineapple, because the pineapple makes her tongue swell up.

So here is dinner by Pearl. Sweet potatoes, and chicken on peas. Very healthy and well-balanced, I must say.

It is obvious she has an eye for this thing.

Well done, Pearlyque!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Old Familiar - Tacubaya Salad with Lemon-Lime Vinaigrette

About once every year, I pull out my old, tattered copy of East of Eden, my favorite book of all time. I re-read and re-visit the paragraphs and characters I love so well. I never really plan on reading it again, but once the urge strikes, I have to indulge. And so far, every year, it happens like clockwork.

I like to re-read books. I do the same thing with The Great Gatsby, and a few others. It might sound cliched, but it seems every time I pick one of these books up again, I find something I missed the last time around. Something new. I think about a passage differently than I used to. And I never, ever tire of reading the last line of Gatsby, possibly the greatest ending to a book ever:

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning --- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

That ending always thrills me.

I take no issue with the familiar, the well-trodden path. My friend Lesley tends to disagree with me on this. She thinks she'll miss out on something new if she sticks with what she's done before. Whether it's a book, an ice cream flavor...I see her point. But I still prefer chocolate ice cream nearly every time. I take comfort in the familiar, and in habit.

So it is with this salad. The Tacubaya Salad. Tacubaya is a Mexican restaurant on 4th Street in Berkeley. It's a favorite lunch spot of mine, not too far from where I worked when I first moved the the Bay Area. Once I discovered this salad on their menu, I committed. My order at Tacubaya is always, always: one chicken taco and the Primavera Salad. Which I have re-named, the Tacubaya Salad.

This salad is everything I want a salad to be. Bright, crunchy, filling, and tangy. There's a lot of texture going on here. Carrots, cucumber, radish, avocado, pumpkin seeds, baby lettuce and cabbage, all tossed in a lemon-lime vinaigrette. It's very possible that I could live off of this salad for quite some time, and be completely content.

I always feel a bit silly posting a salad recipe. I mean, it's a salad. You can probably see from the picture what the proportions are like, and to be honest, I don't measure for it. I throw it all together in the proportions I need. It's about an equal proportion of everything from the pumpkin seeds to the carrots to the cabbage to the lettuce. And the dressing really couldn't be easier. So, think of this as less of a recipe, and more as a few guidelines for this salad of salads.

Tacubaya Salad with Lemon-Lime Vinaigrette
adapted from Tacubaya Restaurant in Berkeley

1 bag mixed baby lettuce
1 bunch radishes, thinly sliced
2-3 carrots, shaved into strips
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
1 cup or more green cabbage, thinly sliced
1 cup or more red cabbage, thinly sliced
1 avocado, cubed
1 cup pepitas or pumpkin seeds, toasted (I usually get the raw ones from Trader Joe's)

for the Vinaigrette:
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp or more of sugar
1/4 tsp salt
olive oil (you need enough for that magic 3 - 1 ratio of oil to acid)

Mix ingredients to taste. It should be sweet, sour, and salty, all at the same time.

Toss everything together and serve.

Monday, April 12, 2010

In the Pouring Rain - Roasted Salmon with Rhubarb & Red Cabbage

I braved high winds and pouring rain last Sunday afternoon to meet Brian for beer and lunch at the Monk's Kettle in San Francisco. Driving across the Bay Bridge, it occurred to me that I hadn't actually been over to the city since...well, mid-February. And it is now April. A very sorry state of affairs. The East Bay does its best (restaurant, food-wise and friend-wise) to make the trip unnecessary, but there's really no excuse for living so close to San Francisco, and yet making it over there so rarely. I couldn't help but feel slightly sheepish that it had been so long. And I have to admit, I'd missed the Mission in all it's grimy hipster-ness. Even in the driving rain, the mustaches, shaggy haircuts, fixie bikes and unnecessary eye ware were out in full force.

I love the Mission, but it always makes me feel as though I'm in some foreign country on a limited visa. I'mnot meant to stay, but just to visit, and staring in fascination at its inhabitants and culture.

I'm glad they let me visit. Elixir is still the only bar I've found in the Bay Area that serves my beloved Deschutes Green Lake beer, and it turns out they also have a make-your-own-Bloody-Mary-bar on Sundays. I think that's worth crossing a bridge for, as I've been on a serious hunt for the best Bay Area Bloody Mary for awhile now. Thus far, Zeitgeist has been the clear leader, but that may just be the sun, picnic tables, Tamale Lady and cheeseburgers talking...

Though we've been experiencing bouts of torrential rain for the last several months now, Bay Area residents still seem woefully unprepared for the weather. Umbrellas seem a rarity, the streets constantly flood, traffic comes to a standstill, and we run, diving under awnings and into shops, dripping wet from trying (unsuccessfully) to dodge the raindrops. I do have an umbrella but I must admit, it's more than slightly broken, and I think I must be a somewhat pathetic sight, running around with what is basically, only half of a working umbrella.

The best thing about torrential rain, is that it makes it easy to stay inside and cook. A horrible rainy day is actually a pleasant day to have the oven on.

I'd been eyeing this unexpected, and rather strange recipe in Bon Appetit: Roasted Salmon with Rhubarb and Red Cabbage. My on-going love affair with rhubarb makes it difficult to ignore any recipe in which it is featured. I'd been wanting to try it in something savory, and the pairing with salmon seemed like a good option. I was really happy with how it turned out too, as the sweet and sour tastes of rhubarb were a great compliment to rich and buttery fish.

I did, however, have a problem with the cabbage. My adaptation ignores the caraway seeds and most of the coriander: the original recipe called for several tablespoons of each, which I found overpowering and unnecessary. Next time I make this, I may omit the cabbage altogether and just top the fish with the rhubarb and orange.

Roasted Salmon with Rhubarb & Red Cabbage
adapted from Bon Appetit

2 tsp black or yellow mustard seeds
3/4 cup fresh orange juice

1/2 cup sugar
4 tbsp water

1 tbsp finely grated orange peel

1 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp minced peeled fresh ginger
2 cups 2-inch-long 1/4-inch-thick matchstick-size strips rhubarb
4 cups thinly sliced red cabbage
1/4 cup Sherry wine vinegar

1/4 cup dry red wine
2 6- to 7-ounce salmon fillets with skin
1 tbsp olive oil or grapeseed oil

Stir mustard seeds in small dry skillet over medium heat until beginning to pop, about 3 minutes. Transfer to small bowl; reserve.

Bring orange juice, sugar, water, and orange peel to boil in large skillet, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to medium; add mustard seeds, coriander seeds, and ginger. Simmer until syrupy, 8 minutes. Add rhubarb; reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until rhubarb is tender but intact, 2 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer rhubarb to microwave-safe bowl; reserve.

Bring syrup in skillet to simmer. Add cabbage, vinegar, and wine; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium, partially cover, and simmer until cabbage is soft and most of liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently, about 45 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425°F. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Place salmon, skin side down, on prepared baking sheet. Brush salmon with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until salmon is just opaque in center, about 11 minutes. Rewarm reserved rhubarb in microwave just until warm. Divide warm cabbage among serving plates. Place 1 salmon fillet atop cabbage. Top with rhubarb.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Michael Bauer's 2010 List of the 100 Best Bay Area Restaurants

The SF Chronicle's 2010 list of the Best Bay Area Restaurants was released this morning! If you are planning a trip to the Bay Area, or just looking for a great place to dine, this is an excellent resource. Currently, my only disagreement, is that Commis in Oakland was left off of the list. Commis has a Michelin Star, and the food speaks for itself. It's certainly of a higher quality than many of the places on the top 100 list. Of the others that I've tried, here are some of my personal favorites, or the ones I usually list when someone poses my favorite question, "Where should we eat?"

Cyrus in Healdsburg - The most memorable and enjoyable dinning experience I've ever had. A special occasion type place if there ever was one.

Pizzaiolo in Oakland - My favorite/go-to restaurant in the Bay Area. It beats almost every pizza place I've tried in San Francisco, including Beretta. I've never had a dish that missed here. It's just the best. The chef recently opened up Boot and Shoe Service in the Grand Lake neighborhood of Oakland. It's basically just a paired down menu of Pizzaiolo's offerings. Also great.

Adesso in Oakland - The salumi selection is mind blowing, they put out a free spread of several of their dishes twice every evening (around happy hour time, and then again late at night). The wine list is excellent and the cocktails are even better.

Bouchon in Napa - A Thomas Keller restaurant, need I say more?

Dopo in Oakland - Another Italian place in Oakland, but this happens to be the restaurant that really turned me on to Bay Area restaurants when I moved in 2004. It's a neighborhood place that's benefited from word of mouth, and yet, it still strives to be a neighborhood place. They've expanded recently, but have kept their integrity and intimate feel.

Flora in Oakland - California/New American cuisine in Downtown Oakland. This place is not to be missed. Best cocktail list I've ever seen, excellent service, great food and one of my favorite dining atmospheres.

Flour + Water in SF - Italian again. Are you sensing a pattern? I admit, I'm biased, I love my Italian places. Get here early and you'll be rewarded. One of the best meals I've had in the past few years. It's an absolute gem.

Foreign Cinema in SF - As the name implies, this place can best be described as cinematic. You'd think it was just a gimmick, but the food erases any trace of that notion. A stunningly romantic restaurant.

Nopa in SF - California/New American cuisine. If you can stand the wait and finally score a seat, you're in for a good meal. One of my San Francisco favorites. The owners are also responsible for Nopalito, just a few blocks away. Terrific Mexican food in SF.

Vik's Chaat Corner in Berkeley - A Berkeley secret that's not so secret. It's a favorite of just about everyone around here. Indian street food done right at a great price. I'd say it's the best we have to offer of ethnic cuisine around here.

Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa - My parents introduced me to this place, and I've been many times over the years. It's just such an enjoyable place to eat, especially after a hard day of wine tasting.

Rutherford Grill in Rutherford - If I don't go to Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa, it's because I'm here. Such a fun place to spend part of your day in the Napa Valley. You can't go wrong with anything on the menu, and their wine list is truly great. A wonderful place to bring friends for a more casual, outdoor meal.

So there you have it. My 2 cents.

Check out the full list of the Top 100 Restaurants in the Bay Area, here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Everyday - Everyday Cake with Strawberry Rhubarb Compote

The days slipped away from me, and I failed to notice that this blog just had its one-year anniversary on March 25th! That baffles me. I can't believe how quickly this year has flown by. So, thank you for reading, and even better if you tried something off of here that you liked!

I've been noticing lately how time seems to speed by faster than ever. As a kid, the minutes, hours, and days tended to drag on forever; the clock painfully ticking down the endless seconds till recess, till the weekend, till summer. Now, it seems I simply blink and an entire month has gone by. What I wouldn't give for a Saved by the Bell style "time out!"

I keep thinking about the play Our Town, by Thorton Wilder. For those of you who aren't familiar, the play consists of three acts: the first centers around the day-to-day lives of the community of Grover's Corners, highlighting two families who have a son George, and a daughter, Emily.

In the second act, George and Emily fall in love, and eventually get married. In the final act, Emily has died in childbirth, but revisits the town of Grover's Corners as a ghost. She is allowed to relive one day of her past. She chooses her 12th birthday, though other ghosts caution her not to go, as it will be too painful. When they cannot convince her, they advise her to, at the very least, chose an unimportant day to visit, "for the least important day will be important enough."

As Emily watches, unnoticed and unseen by her living family members, her Mother prepares breakfast, her Father reads the paper at the table, and the sights and sounds of what used to be everyday occurrences rush by her. Emily becomes more and more distraught and overwhelmed by all she took for granted. The pain quickly becomes too much and she says, "I can't go on. It goes so fast...I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed."

When Emily returns to her grave, she asks the narrator of the play if anyone ever realizes life while they live it--life as it is, "every, every minute."

"No," the Narrator says, "Saints and poets maybe--they do some."

I've read this play so many times over the years. I've seen several productions, but it wasn't until two years ago at the 2008 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, that I finally started to understand. I found myself sitting in the outdoor theatre on a warm night, under the stars, with tears streaming down my face. I could hardly stand to see anymore. It was all so bittersweet, so uncontrollable, and much, much too fast.

It feels like the older you get, the more true it becomes. Time speeds up and slips away before you know it, and it's a struggle to simply live in the moment and appreciate everything for what it is.

Everyday Cake with Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote
adapted from the Busy Day Cake recipe by Edna Lewis
compote adapted from Smitten Kitchen

This cake's official title is the "Busy Day Cake." It's nothing fancy, it comes together in about half-an-hour: an everyday type of thing. I called it the "Everyday Cake" when I couldn't remember the official name, and for me, it has stuck. I couldn't be happier that rhubarb is back in season. This combination is very much like a Strawberry Rhubarb Shortcake. Is there anything better than the smell of baked rhubarb? If so, it's hard to imagine.

For the Compote
1 lb rhubarb, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 lb strawberries, hulled and rinsed
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp lemon juice
2/3 cups sugar

Cut up the rhubarb and strawberries. Reserve about half of the cut strawberries and set aside. Put the remaining strawberries and cut rhubarb into a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat with the lemon juice, zest and sugar.

Let the mixture bubble and simmer for about five minutes. The juices will extract quickly. Stir from time to time to help everything breakdown. The rhubarb will fall apart and the whole thing becomes a beautiful fuchsia color. As soon as the rhubarb has broken down and become soft, remove from the heat, add the reserved strawberries and set in a bowl to cool to room temperature. Once the mixture has cooled, place in the refrigerator. It will keep for a couple weeks, covered. Makes about 3-4 cups.

For the Cake
1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 good pinch nutmeg, freshly ground
1/2 cup whole milk, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 375. Beat the butter and sugar together until lightly fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, until well mixed. Add vanilla.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Gradually add the flour mixture to the batter about 1/4 at a time and beat together. Add about 1/3 of the milk, and continue to alternate combining the milk and flour until all well incorporated.

Butter a 9x9 pan, and spoon the batter in, smoothing the top with a spatula. Bake for 30-35 minutes.