Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mid-Century Modern - Old Fashioned Cocktail

Well hello there, Don Drapper. I've missed you so...

We celebrated the beginning of the 4th Season of Mad Men on Sunday at Amber's with a cocktail hour. Old Fashioned's were served. It seemed to be the most appropriate (not to mention delicious) choice. And then the new episode started, and seemed to last all of 10 minutes. It flew by and barely served to whet our appetite. In reality, it was 45 minutes of sheer mid-century modern bliss. Just a glimpse of the gorgeous sets and costumes on that show makes me positively giddy.

Like this:

I would like to own Don Drapper's chair. Come to think of it, I could make do with his entire office, really.

Or this:

Now that is a dress.

I think we all need a little more Joan Holloway in our lives, wouldn't you agree?

And now I'm itching to run down to the Alameda Flea Market to snatch up yet another chair. The mid-century modern addiction is a serious thing. It often results in impulse furniture purchase. I think I'm going to have to move on to lamps.

In the meantime, my recipe for a proper Old Fashioned...

Old Fashioned Cocktail

2 ounces bourbon (I used Makers Mark)
1 sugar cube
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 orange slice
1 good-quality cocktail cherry (I used Trader Joe's brand)
2 large ice cubes
*club soda (optional)

Place the sugar cube in the bottom of a cocktail glass, and soak it with the bitters. Add the orange slice and the cherry, and muddle together until the sugar has thoroughly absorbed the liquid and melted a bit. Add the bourbon and the ice, and stir well. You can also add a splash of club soda if desired. This is also the point where I add another cherry. Just for fun.

*Tip: If you want to get really fancy with it, try making ice by boiling the water before you place it in the ice tray. This makes the ice cubes turn out perfectly clear. They do this at the restaurant Flora in Oakland, one of my favorites. It's always an impressive trick.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Music Break - Arancini (Risotto Balls)

There are few things better than trotting home with a hard-drive filled with new music. Thus begins the discovery process: sifting through the new collection to find that rare gem that becomes your favorite song of the next few months. The one that, when you hear it in the years to come, brings back the memories of that point in time forever. The one that perpetually finds itself smack in the middle of nearly every future road-trip mix, a constant on compilation cd's for friends, the one that's on repeat on a lazy Sunday morning. The one you lend an earbud to a friend for..."you gotta hear this," you say as you share a pair, watching their face in happy anticipation and expectation, hoping they'll share your elation on discovering for themselves their own new favorite song.

A few months ago, it was this one:

and now, it's this one:

This blog has been in desperate need of music. By all means, if you have something you can't get out of your head, feel free to share in the comments. There's nothing I love more than new music.

But Arancini is a close runner-up.

I was excited to take Leah's class at Kitchen on Fire in Berkeley, I was even more excited when I found out we were going to be making Arancini. I've had a strange fear of deep-frying, and have been much too reluctant to try it out on my much oil. But it wasn't nearly as intimidating as I'd thought it would be. In fact, it was easy. Not to mention delicious. It's the perfect appetizer. Once you have risotto hanging out in your fridge, it's just a skip away from Arancini. And honestly, who doesn't love a deep fried rice ball?

Arancini (Risotto Balls)

Enough vegetable oil for deep frying
2 eggs, beaten to blend
2 cups cold risotto (recipe here)
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 1/2 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
assorted ingredients for filling: we used goat cheese, fig, proscuitto, parmesan chunks...use whatever sounds delicious to you!
thermometer for monitoring the oil temperature
baking rack for cooling the arancini

In a large, heavy saucepan, heat about 3 inches of oil to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, risotto, 1/2 cup of the breadcrumbs and the Parmesan till well mixed. Place the remaining breadcrumbs in a medium sized bowl, and place about 2 tbsp of the risotto mixture in your hand, flattening it out into a disk. Make an indentation with your finger in the middle of the risotto disk, and place a small amount of your filling (goat cheese, fig, prosciutto, whatever) into the middle. Form the rice into a ball around the filling, and gently roll until firm and well-formed. Roll the balls in the bread crumb mixture to coat and set aside until you've formed them all.

Using a slotted spoon, add the balls to the oil in batches, cook until lightly brown and heated through. Cooking time will depend on the temperature of your oil, so keep a close eye on the color. It can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Possibly longer. Remove the balls with a slotted spoon and place on cooling racks with paper towels placed under the racks. Do not place directly on paper towels, or the arancini will become soft. You need air circulating all around to keep the crispy texture. Season with salt, and let rest for about 2 minutes until slightly cooled. Serve hot with a marinara dipping sauce.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Record Lows - Risotto

People in the Bay Area are feeling gypped right now. It's the end of July, practically August, and yet, the weather has been stubbornly hovering between a frosty 50-65 for the past couple weeks and the fog is constant. "Record lows," are the words falling out of every meteorologist's mouth.

It's a strange state of affairs when you're looking forward to leaving freezing California for warm and sunny Oregon.

Even the tomatoes seem to have gone on strike due to the weather. The good ones are nowhere to be found. Stonefruit is here, but the weather calls for something you can curl up with, warm and comforting.

Risotto helps. But the only way I'll be ok with this weather is if the sun and high temperatures return soon and extend into November or so. And there's another reason for making it, an Arancini (fried risotto balls) recipe courtesy of Leah that's perfect for the leftovers. Stay tuned for that...and hopefully some decidedly more summery recipes.

Basic Risotto

6 cups chicken broth
2 cups white wine
1/4 cup unsalted butter
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cups onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups aborio rice
2/3 cup grated Parmesan
salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
*note: you can also substitute a bit of water in the broth/wine mixture if you'd like

Bring the broth and wine to a simmer in a saucepan on a back burner. Keep broth warm over low heat while you're cooking the rice.

Heat the butter & olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until tender, add garlic and saute until fragrant. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains evenly, continue to cook for about a couple minutes more to toast the rice and then add about 1 cup of the hot broth. Simmer over medium to medium-low and stir often until the liquid is absorbed, about 3 minutes or so. Continue to add about a cup of broth, stirring and letting it absorb until the rice is creamy and tender. The whole process should take less than half-an-hour, and you should have used 6-8 cups of the broth. Season with salt & pepper to taste and serve hot, right away.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What Next? - Quinoa, Tomato & Cucumber Salad

I'm in preparation mode. Cleaning out my desk at work, organizing my files, creating the necessary paper trail for the person who comes into my current position next, trying to get my apartment ready for the work-from-home transition. It's all very cathartic actually. And so far, it's a terrific distraction from the fact that I've set into motion a fairly drastic change for myself.

I'm not a person who comes around to change very easily. I wouldn't call myself impulsive per say...impromptu road trip, yes. Impulse purchase of that thing I want but don't need at the check out line in the grocery store? Often enough. The occasional late night piano bar karaoke session? It has been know to happen. But when it comes to the big decisions; a move, a job, a relationship, I tend to take my time to carefully examine the facts, and then do it again, and again, and again, until I'm so sick of thinking about it I just make up my mind to decide. I can be a tad over-analytical, and as much as I wish it weren't the case...cautious to a fault.

I don't know if this current path I've chosen will work out, but I do know it was time for me to move on. For now, at least, I have the organization of my life to keep me from pondering to death the idea of, "what happens next?" Well...I have that and True Blood, also a terrific distraction. I'm trying to just let go, take it a day at a time, and enjoy the fact that I'm about to have almost 2 weeks vacation. Unheard of. The last thing I want to do with that time is over-analyze the fun out of it.

When you clean out the desk you've worked at for the last four years, and you come across things that remind you of something that seemed to happen only yesterday, you tend to realize how quickly the time has gone by. And hopefully, how much fun you had in the process.

Quinoa, Tomato & Cucumber Salad

adapted from the NY Times

1 cup quinoa
1/2 large english cucumber, diced
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 small red onion, minced
1 avocado, sliced for garnish
1/2 cup basil, chopped
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
salt & pepper to taste

Soak the quinoa in cold water for 15 minutes, cook according to package directions. When the quinoa has cooked and is tender, drain and set aside and let cool to nearly room temperature.

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar and lime juice. Pour the vinaigrette over the tomatoes, onion & cucumber and let sit for about 5 minutes to marinate. Add salt & pepper to taste.

When the quinoa has cooled, mix together with the tomato mixture and add the herbs. Taste for seasoning and then garnish with avocado and serve.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ch-ch-ch-changes! - Creamy Tomato Gazpacho

Two weeks ago, this was my view from the Washington/Dulles Airport:

I was in Washington D.C. for less than 24 hours for a job interview with interviews in fact. It was a complete whirlwind, but I'm happy to say that they went very well! Today I gave notice at my current job. As of August 9th, I am the Oakland Account Executive for LivingSocial. I'll be scouting out my city and other parts of the Bay Area to find the things I love to do and share. They're going to pay me for that. Crazy.

There's something unbelievably frighting and exhilarating about taking a new job. A leap into the unknown. You never know if you're making the right just have to go on instinct. Mine is telling me to leap. I'm overwhelmed, nervous, excited, relieved and, of course, I feel incredibly lucky to have the chance to move on to a new opportunity, especially with the economy being what it is.

I'll be working from home and able to set my own schedule. It means that I'll have more time to take the classes I want to take, to do all those extra activities I've been thinking about, to go the gym at 10am if I want, and, more time for this blog. To be able to photograph during daylight hours! I can't tell you how exciting that is. Even to just be that person in the coffee shop working on their laptop at 11am. I have always mocked that person...yet secretly, I always wished that was me.

And now it will be.


In a few weeks, I head back to D.C. to start my training. I plan to take a long vacation in the meantime. Get my head together, visit with family and friends, enjoy a bit of free time, and get my apartment in shape for the work-from-home transition. Wish me luck! Here goes nothing...

This NY Times recipe for Gazpacho came at a fortuitous time. The evening before some friends and I had shared an unbelievable bowl of Sungold Tomato Soup at Boot and Shoe in Oakland, and I couldn't get over my tomato soup craving. I had a pound of cherry tomatoes in the fridge, along with all the other ingredients laying around the kitchen. It called out to me. I made it in about 20 minutes for a weekend lunch...savoring the fact that making my lunch with care at home will be a regular occurrence soon. It was delicious, creamy, savory and tangy...everything I want a soup to be.

Creamy Tomato Gazpacho
adapted (slightly) from NY Times

1 lb cherry tomatoes (I used red, but the sungold would be amazing in this soup)
1 1/2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
10-12 basil leaves, roughly chopped, reserve some for garnish
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/2 medium cucumber, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
2 ice cubes
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1 3/4 tsp kosher salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
pinch of Cayenne pepper

Blend all of the ingredients in a food-processor, blender or with a hand blender. Puree until smooth. Taste, and season with salt and/or vinegar if needed. Pour into bowls, garnish with basil and serve.

Monday, July 12, 2010

An Intensive - Cultured Butter

Recently some friends asked me to come along on a hike. "I can't," I replied, "I'm taking a 6 hour cheese intensive that day."

You risk some raised eyebrows and prolonged stares when making a statement like that. But then again, this is the Bay Area. A passion for cheese (or really anything food related) is not uncommon, and more often than not the response is something like:

a. Awesome, where's the class and when can I take it?
b. Cool! I did a (insert butchery class, knife skills, pasta making, bread, etc.) last week.

The culinary arts are well respected in this part of the world. Otherwise 6 hour cheese intensives wouldn't be a possibility. Luckily for me, they are. My friend Elisa kindly invited me to join her in the class. I can safely say we didn't really know what we were in for, which was, roughly, five different cheeses (ricotta, mozzerella, camembert, chevre, feta, yogurt) and 2 different kinds of butter.

It was a long day of dairy at the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland, ending in a feast of our labors. With the feta, we assembled a beautiful caprese salad, pictured above. The feta was my favorite of the bunch, tangy and mild. I've always been somewhat intimidated by the cheese making process, having only attempted ricotta and chevre. My ricotta turned out great, the chevre, not so much. It's a fairly precise art. You need the right ingredients, the right tools and above all, the right temperatures. Some of the cheeses require more time and effort than others, of course. I thought I'd share the recipe for cultured butter, totally easy and incredibly delicious.

I don't know why I hadn't considered making my own butter before. Now that I realize how simple it is to do, I'll certainly be doing it again. It's far superior to store-bought, especially the cultured butter, or yogurt butter. Basically, you just add yogurt to the milk, let it ferment a bit, and then whip it up. It was delicious.

Well worth a 6 hour cheese intensive.

Cultured Butter

1 quart heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup plain whole milk yogurt
a couple pinches of salt

In a glass bowl, mix the cream and yogurt together. Cover with a hand-towel or cheesecloth and let the mixture sit out in a warm area of your kitchen overnight. The ideal temperature for this is between 70-75 degrees. It will still work if it's colder, it will just take a bit longer.

In the morning, the mixture should have thickened a bit, letting the yogurt cultures meld with the cream.

A couple options at this point, you can put the mixture in your cuisineart (if you have one) on high for about 3 minutes, until the butter has formed a ball, you can use a hand-mixer on high, or you can put it in a jar and shake it vigorously until it's turned (if you have very strong arms).

If using a hand-mixer, turn the setting from high to low once the cream starts to form stiff peaks. At this point, the milk solids are separating from the liquid and things can get messy if the speed is too high.

When the solid butter has formed, pour off any buttermilk liquid in the bowl, and squeeze the butter to release any additional liquids (you can reserve the liquid, which is basically just buttermilk, for dressings). This is where a butter press can come in handy. The picture above is of butter that has been pressed, the press had the bird design molded into it. Pretty, no?

The final step is to rinse your butter with cold water, do that until the water runs clear and it will keep it from turning rancid. After that, salt the butter on all sides.

Dish, and serve.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Peace & Quiet - Caramel Banana Cake

Photo by Brian

While at the river last weekend, I stepped out of the house alone around midnight and walked a few yards away. The moon was just about full, the forest and river were lit just enough to see by it's light. I stood still and silence and stillness. I couldn't even hear the river.

I can't remember the last time I heard silence like that. So incredibly peaceful.

It's easy to forget that that sense of quiet and stillness even exists when you live in the city, amid the constant hum of fans, air-conditioners, motors, refrigerators, traffic, etc. After having been on the go non-stop for the 3 days prior to our river trip, it was an unbelievable relief to be able to stand completely still, and not hear a single thing. Just peace and absolute quiet.

After a few minutes, I did hear a car drive by on a road not too far away, and then a small splash in the river, and what sounded like a owl in a nearby tree. I can't tell you how peaceful that moment was, especially after 96 hours of being on the go, non-stop.

It was a good weekend. So good that we decided to head up again this Saturday. I can't seem to get enough river time these days.

Have I mentioned that summer is my favorite season?

So, more about that Caramel Banana Cake. A cake I'd never made before, but one that Leah had requested. She was quite specific, Caramel. Banana. Cake. Anything for her 30th! As I said in my last post, this batter would be perfect for muffins. It's like the worlds greatest banana bread. I mean come on, it has caramel in it!

Caramel Banana Cake
2 9-inch layers

3/4 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups mashed bananas
1 1/2 cups caramel sauce (recipe below)

Heat oven to 325. Grease two 9" cake pans.

Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy then add the eggs and beat until silky and lightened. Sift the flour with the baking soda and salt. Whisk the milk and mashed bananas in a separate measuring cup and add to the eggs and butter, alternating with the flour. Beat just until smooth.

Pour batter into the prepared pans. Pour half the caramel sauce into each pan, and swirl with a knife. The pans will be quite full. Put in the oven carefully and bake for about 60 minutes, or until the centers are set and a knife comes out clean.

Cool completely before serving. Optional, whip about 2 cups of heavy cream with 1 tbsp of sugar and 1 tsp vanilla. Whip until the cream until it forms stiff peaks. Coat the cake in a layer of whipped cream with a flat rubber spatula.

Caramel Sauce
makes about 3 cups

2 cups cream
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
Pinch salt
1 tbsp butter

Warm the cream in a small saucepan over low to medium heat. While it's warming, add the sugar and water to a large, heavy, high-sided pan over high heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then leave it alone to boil until it reaches a deep amber color. It's hot, but if you can, taste while you go, you don't want to caramel to burn.

Remove from heat and slowly whisk in the cream. The mixture will bubble and spit while adding the cream, so stand back and go slow! Add the pinch of salt and butter and whisk smooth. Simmer until slightly reduced.