Friday, July 31, 2009

Post Number One Hundred

And here I am, one hundred posts later, still cooking away and writing about it occasionally. I thought a lot about what to write for this one-hundredth post. Originally, I had hoped it would be a Daring Kitchen post, but my cookies came out terribly and I'm having to sit out the current Daring Cooks contest, so that was out. Then I thought I'd make it short and sweet and just introduce y'all to Husband's and Little Girl's images. They are, after all, the main audience for my food itself. The rest of you just get pictures and descriptions. One of my current favorites of the two of them near Desertville therefore graces this post.

That's how I was leaning two days ago, but I didn't have time to post. This morning, I read Michael Pollan's latest article in the NYTimes, scheduled to appear in Sunday's Magazine. The article is about the phenomenon that is food television, perhaps particularly competitive food television like Iron Chef and Top Chef. (He neglects to mention the current Top Chef Masters, which I am loving this summer.) Pollan points out that Americans are cooking less, but watching other people cook more. His usual excellent arguments about how these habits affect both our own diets and our food system are present and insightful as always.

But as I was reading it, I had some misgivings. Like virtually all food-related things these days (apparently, anyway), one of Pollan's jumping-off points is the soon-to-be-released Julie and Julia. Pollan's mother was inspired by Julia Child to infuse experimentation and excitement into their weekly meals and he remembers it fondly. His argument is that most of the competitive food shows are more about "don't try this at home" than "hey, you can do this, too!", which was Julia's message. And maybe some of them are. Bravo's website does publish Top Chef recipes (and even published a book about them). One of those recipes, for pureed cauliflower and potatoes, has become part of my regular menu with a few changes because I'm not willing to cook the veggies in straight heavy cream. My point is that not all the food challenge shows ignore the cooking and recipes.

And, of course, Julie Powell was so inspired by Julia Child that she cooked every recipe over the course of a year. Pollan may consider her to be the exception that proves the rule, but I think he's ignoring, well, us. The food bloggers.

While the Daring Kitchen has been my most-recent love among food blog events, it is not lonely! Many weekly, monthly, and one-off food blogging events can be found listed on websites such as Is My Blog Burning? and others. I've participated in several others in the previous 99 posts. And if I wanted to and had the time, I could cook for a blogging event or challenge every day and probably not run out of choices.

Food blogs have created an entirely new way for cooks to swap recipes, share cooking experiences, make friends, show off their skills, and learn new things. While food bloggers may be a very small percentage of the American population, I like to think that we are not just crazy cooks on the fringe, but the leading edge of a new revolution in cooking. One of the people interviewed for the article asks who will teach the next generations how to cook. And I say, we will! With our hands and hearts in person, through our informative blogs, in cooking demonstrations on the web for everything from cutting an onion to flipping an omelette to making Chinese dumpling ... food bloggers are people who care about cooking. And we'll be around for a while to teach others to care, too.

There. Now I've thought deep thoughts for post number one hundred. I'll be ... hmmm ... I was about to say that I'll be out of town for the next couple weeks, but there's no town for me to be out of. So, more accurately, I'll be in town for the next two weeks. I hope to share photos of farmers markets and meals, but I probably won't be cooking much.

Enjoy the first half of August!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Garden Update

Don't you love walking into a mid-summer garden? Tall plants cascade into the walkways. You have to beat back vines, avoid tripping on baseball-sized zucchini, and generally wade through greenery and abundance. You get whiffs of basil and tomatoes and dill just by brushing up against a few leaves. It's great.

It's also not my garden. My garden, mentioned previously, is not exactly a riot of plant life. I suppose I should have expected that, being in the middle of a desert and all. But I had much higher hopes both for my own gardening motivation and skills, and for the ability of my coffee grounds and manure enhanced soil. Alas, various trips and the lack of neighbors who could babysit newly transplanted seedlings meant that I kept postponing lots of things. Like lettuce. Which I still hope to do for the fall. And when I did get tomato and cucumber plants in the ground, three of them got hit hard by some disease (all tomatoes), one of them got hit lightly by the disease and had half its leaves eaten by a still-unidentified beastie (but I'm thinking non-insect), and yet another just didn't thrive. For no particular reason that I can tell.

So I've been limping along with the remainders, trying to keep them alive. The harvest so far? Three cherry tomatoes, two of which are gracing this post.

I had a cucumber. Someone warned me, after I'd planted them, that I really should have sought out Persian cucumbers because they handle the heat well. I figured that having bought my plants in Las Vegas and them being labeled heat-tolerant and all, I'd be ok. And then I kept getting flower after flower after flower, with no fruit forming. And then I had one! I had a very, very small cucumber with its flower still attached. I showed Little Girl. I tried to show Husband, but he was weary of admiring the garden, having admired the almost-ripe cherry tomatoes the day before. I was very pleased.

And then down came the rains. Massive, flash-flood-producing rains came two days in a row. I wanted the rain, don't get me wrong, but my cucumber plants most clearly did not. And now, I have no cucumber.

Always optimistic, I hope for another one. I have more flowers. They're bright and sunny and cheerful. They seem optimistic. Why shouldn't I?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Daring Bakers: Orange Milano Cookies

July 12th

10:21 am: Looking ahead to the rest of the month, I realized this morning that I have very little time to make this month's Daring Bakers challenge.

The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

Nicole very kindly allowed us to make either both types of cookies or just one. I'm not a big marshmallow cookie fan and in July, the idea of having to properly coat something in melted chocolate is just insane here; I'm sticking with just the Milan Cookies. So I am taking the plunge and my butter is in a bowl softening so that it will be ready when Little Girl starts her nap.

2:27 pm: I'm about to start separating eggs, a task I don't really love, but at least I'm not trying to whip the egg whites to some meringue-type stiffness, so if I break a yolk in the process, I won't ruin anything. I'm also realizing that I must be certifiably insane to be doing this today. It's definitely the hottest day we've had so far this summer. Even with the swamp cooler on high, I can't get the house below 82F. But hey! My butter was very well softened -- that's the upside!

Why am I doing this again?

3:09 pm: Oh. My. I thought I had such a nice plan to make a few round cookies from this, but my plan has gone a little awry. I just turned my sheet pans and I'm not sure this is what the cookies should look like. We'll see after another five minutes, but in the meantime, the rest of the batter/dough is in the fridge to make it firm up a little.

3:30pm: Right. I am now ready to accept that these cookies will not be going in my raging success category of new recipes. They had better taste delicious because, so far, at least, they are not very attractive. I've just popped the next batch in the oven and I'm mixing some cinnamon and cayenne into the remaining batter/dough to make a slightly more "grown-up" version.

4:33 pm: I just realized that I'm an idiot. It never feels good to come to that conclusion, but there's really no escaping it. The filling for these cookies has three ingredients: chocolate, cream, and orange zest. Really, how hard is it to get three ingredients into a bowl? Apparently, too hard for me. Because as I was spreading the chocolate onto my next-to-last cookie, I suddenly realized that I hadn't put in the orange zest. I hadn't zested the orange. I hadn't even taken the organic orange I bought especially for this challenge out of the refrigerator.

Well. Ain't that a kick in the teeth? To add insult to injury, as I was having this revelation, I stopped paying attention to what I was doing and put the topper cookie on backwards, so now I have a half-inside-out cookie.


July 27th

Apparently, I was so disappointed with my outcome in this challenge, that I didn't even properly finish the post before realizing this morning that it's time to post it. My culinary pride already has several cuts in it, but just to make this challenge more of a big fail, the camera I used to take pictures of the cookies (some of which, both cookies and pictures, were quite pretty in the end) has gone walkabout. So a poor showing on the challenge and the post itself. A photo-less Daring Bakers post ... grumble, grumble ... be sure to check out some other Daring Bakers so you can see how beautiful the cookies can be.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wandering In Search Of Food, Part 2

The outdoor patio at Root 246.

I woke up the day after my birthday with a small plan. It involved spending the day mostly away from the coast and eating at a restaurant I'd seen an ad for in a local magazine. Root 246 sounded lovely from what I'd read and I really wanted one sort-of-fancy meal. So in a round-about way, I headed out of Santa Maria to Solvang. Along the way I saw a lot of vineyards and mountainsides of grape vines. Very beautiful country.

I miraculously found street parking with a bit of shade in Solvang, just off the street the restaurant is on. I forgot to look at the street address before I got out of the car, but I didn't have to wander too far before I found it. As I walked up the stairs past the patio seating, I knew that if I looked at the menu and decided to eat at Root 246, I'd be eating outside. I looked, I saw they had perfectly fine veggie options (but not many -- be warned), the prices were within my mental budget, and I stayed.

I did love the sound of any of the vegetarian main courses, so I decided to have a cheese plate and a salad. They brought a separate cheese menu along with their lunch and wine menus, so they seemed fairly serious about their cheeses. All the cheeses sounded good to me; I had a lot of trouble choosing three. In the end, I asked my waiter (very friendly, not hovering, but always there if I needed something) for help. I wanted to try the St. Pat, a raw cow's milk cheese cured in stinging nettles. It was described as having a smoky artichoke flavor. I asked for someone else to choose two cheeses that would complement the St Pat and so ended up with a cow's milk tasting. The two other cheeses were Red Hawk, which was by far my favorite, and Beecher's Flagship, a one-year aged cheese.

The cheese plate, as you can see, was lovely. Nice portions of the three cheeses, with a little dish of local honeycomb, a fresh fig, champagne grapes, and almonds. It came with toasts of a raisin bread, which didn't do anything for me. I hate raisins, but I gave it a try and it just didn't work. I ate most of the cheese by itself or on the crusty bread that was on my bread plate. I enjoyed the whole thing immensely, bought a round of the Red Hawk at a store in Santa Ynez to take home, and served it with honey because the combination is so perfect.

I have a complaint about their cheese menu before I move on to my salad. When a restaurant goes to the trouble of having a separate cheese menu, with a short paragraph describing each cheese, and giving the cheese's origin, it should mention the cheese maker. When I found the Red Hawk in the store, I was very surprised to see that it was a Cowgirl Creamery cheese. It's such a well-known cheese maker and it is not in San Francisco, as stated on the menu, but in Point Reyes, one of my dream vacation spots. I would not have picked the Red Hawk from the description, but I would have picked it first if the menu had stated that it was from Cowgirl Creamery because I've wanted to taste more of their cheeses. (As it happens, I tasted two of their cheeses in this meal because the St. Pat is also one of theirs.)

But anyway, on to the salad.

My salad's name (nickname, really, because there was more to it) is Babe Farms Garden Party. And it was a party on the plate. So many different veggies! Roasted red and golden beets, carrot, summer squash, a radishes, broccoli rabe, and a variety of different greens. I ordered it in part because I loved the sound of the goat cheese croquets, but they were very dry and a little chewy and my least favorite part of the salad. My first bites lacked a little something and I almost considered requesting a salt shaker, but then I discovered two small puddles of creme fraiche hiding under the greens and tossing the salad with that solved my flavor problems. I loved this salad.

Overall, I loved this restaurant. It was a beautiful place to sit and eat. The food was interesting and beautifully presented. I'd love to go back with Husband and Little Girl. When I said that to my waiter, in response to his "I hope we'll see you again sometime", we ended up having a short conversation about child-friendly food. I said that I wasn't sure there was a Little Girl-friendly dish on the menu and he said that the kitchen is always happy to accomodate a child's taste, with a pasta or a sandwich or whatever it takes. That alone makes me hope that we can visit there sometime in the future.

My trip continued after lunch and I wound my way through more winding roads to Ojai. Ojai has a lot of artists and craftspeople and therefore, a lot of interesting stores. I had hoped to find a gift for Little Girl there and found a store with a t-shirt I wanted to buy her, but the sign said, "Closed for Grandpa duty". Can't argue with that.

I think there was an iced coffee somewhere in that day that I missed, but I did actually skip breakfast when I got to Los Olivos and found no little cafe hiding among the 17 (give or take) wine tasting rooms. I had hoped for something there. I made it back to my girl and Husband in time to have some good pizza with them and my in-laws, and then polished off my very last piece of birthday cake.

It was a good birthday.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Two Days Of Food Wanderings Or, My Husband Is Awesome, Part 1

So I turned forty last week. To me, it marks another good year of life; I'm not worried about the whole 4-0 business. Husband felt somewhat differently. He started asking me what I wanted to do for my birthday months ago. And I wasn't sure and I wasn't sure and then I had a thought. I haven't spent a night away from Little Girl since she was born. I love her to pieces, but a little time away seemed like a good thing, so I asked for two days all to myself. And Husband agreed. He's a good husband.

The remants of my lovely birthday cake.

The evening before my birthday, I shared a truly delicious cake (and my favorite champagne!) with my extended in-law family. Husband did good procuring the cake: almond cake layers with a chocolate mousse filling and a praline layer for some crunch, topped quite dramatically with white and milk chocolate curls. People moaned as they ate it.

I woke up on the great day itself, opened a few presents with Little Girl's help, ate breakfast (leftover birthday cake, of course!), kissed Little Girl and Husband good-bye, and hopped in the car that Husband had gotten scrubbed inside and out the day before. Again -- I've got the best husband in the world. Y'all can just be jealous.

I had almost no plans except that I wanted to eat some great food and do whatever else seemed good at the time. The exceptions to the "no plans" were that I wanted to have lunch at a great sushi place we've been to a few times in Santa Barbara (my in-laws live outside of Los Angeles, so that was my starting point) and I wanted to hit the evening farmers' market in San Luis Obispo. One out of two is what I got. "Our" sushi place doesn't exist any more and I settled for a good-but-not-great Vietnamese lunch a couple blocks away. I had some very nice shrimp spring rolls, but an oily and not especially flavorful crispy tofu with lemongrass for my main. It was a wash.

After that, I drove up the coast to Pismo Beach where I tried to get a picture of the display case full of chocolate-covered grasshoppers, bacon-and-cheddar grasshoppers, white-chocolate-covered grasshoppers, etc., but there were inconsiderate crowds in the way of my photo.

Some of the gorgeous produce at the market.

I arrived in San Luis Obispo (SLO) a couple hours before the farmers' market started. I needed some extra change for my parking meter and came across Cowboy Cookies within a block of where I parked. What's a girl to do? I had a chocolate-chip/walnut cookie that was delicious, with almost enough walnuts to satisfy my walnut-tooth. Don't laugh. I have one. I wandered the main shopping district for a while, drank an iced coffee while I watched some of the vendors set up, and then was ready for the farmers' market to start!

Fire! Meat! Artichokes!

It was some market. It covers six or seven blocks of the main commercial street in SLO, with live music at every intersection, bicycle valet parking, and thousands of people. I couldn't, of course, buy anything really because I was staying in a hotel. I was hoping to see bread and cheese and fruit for a picnic or breakfast, but bread and cheese were largely absent from this market. BBQ, on the other hand, dominated the two ends of the market that showcased ready-to-eat food. Not being a meat-eater, this didn't interest me except in the sense that seeing a few hundred people in line to buy BBQ is a fascinating thing. Oh, and I like fire. A lot.

For dinner, my interest was caught by a booth at the market that served only to lead people half a block away to Bel Frites, a small storefront cafe that serves Belgian fries and Belgian beer. And that's all. They offer traditional plain fries and a variety of seasoned fries, and a selection of dipping sauces. I chose plain fries with a chipotle aioli and was not disappointed one bit until my fries ran out and there were no more. Then I was disappointed. Honestly, I would go back to SLO just so I could take Husband to eat these fries. I might owe him that much after this trip.

I wandered the market for a while after my fries were gone, drove out to the coast to see the fog roll in instead of a sunset, and then headed back inland to my hotel for the night. I might have had a few small pieces of chocolate before bed. One should always eat healthy, balanced meals on one's birthday, after all.

Stay tuned for Day 2, which featured a lovely lunch in Solvang, the Danish capital of California.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Daring Cooks Play With Powders

I know that most mothers tell their children not to play with their food. Lucky for me, my mother wasn't much for the traditional childhood prohibitions, so I feel completely free to play with my food and talk to strangers. Good thing, too, because today's meal requires a well-developed sense of play. Without an appreciation for a little wackiness, the challenge could easily turn into many hours of tedious preparation.

What kind of meal inspires thoughts like that? A Daring Cooks challenge that skirts the non-chemical side of molecular gastronomy, that's what! Sketchy (from Sketchy's Kitchen) has a small obsession with the scientific side of cooking and dared the rest of us to enter that world. If you're unsure about just what molecular gastronomy is, think foams, gels, and caviar from foods not usually associated with such forms. It is play with food at an intricate level. If that doesn't help (which it probably doesn't), a browse through Sketchy's MG-related posts will show you what our host has been playing at. Wikipedia has a pretty nice discussion of molecular gastronomy, too. If you follow links to some of the chefs mentioned, the Great Wiki will give you even more information.

The challenge recipe comes from Grant Achatz's cookbook, Alinea: Skate, traditional flavors powdered. I'm not going to reproduce the entire recipe here, but at its heart, it's skate, poached in a beurre Monte sauce, green beans, bananas (I'm banana-phobic; I can't even discuss it's intended role), and several flavorful ingredients dehydrated and powdered. The potentially-tedious part of the whole thing is dehydrating, crushing, and sieving of multiple foods.

Lemon and lime zest before poaching and dehydrating.

We were given some license to play, so my dish was Pacific cod (more environmentally-friendly than skate) with green beans and powdered mango, cilantro, basil, red onion, lemon and lime zest, and chipotle pepper. The mango and chipotle were already dried. The rest was up to me.

The zest after microwave-dehydration was complete.

My reaction to this challenge was mixed. On one hand, I loved the whole concept of having a luxurious, butter-poached fish (beurre Monte is an emulsion of a tiny bit of water and a whole lot of butter) dipped into the powders. On the other, dehydrating multiple foods without a dehydrator was daunting and the whole thing was way outside my normal comfort zone. So I did my homework. I read through the recipe's directions for microwave-dehydrating. Read some more directions online. And read the whole recipe-experience via Alinea At Home.

And then I got Husband to buy the fish when he went to town, so I had no choice but make it the next day.

I started around nine in the morning, getting my powders in order. The onions seemed like the longest project, so I got them small-chopped (should have minced them properly) and into the microwave at low-medium power (4 out of 10) for ten minutes. Then I stirred them and gave them another ten. It wasn't working very well. Over the next couple hours, in between dehydrating other things, I'd pop the onions back in on very low (2 out of 10) for three minutes at a time. Eventually, they were dry little nuggets and ground up to a very flavorful powder. (Sorry for the blurry photo; things were a little chaotic.)

Onions, finally dry, in the coffee grinder.

Freeze-dried mango, ready to pulverize. Beware! It gums up the works!

Other than the onion, which probably had an extra half-hour in the microwave, the dehydrating went pretty well. The citrus zest required poaching in simple syrup before it was dried. The basil and cilantro, in order to keep their color, got a second-long bath in boiling water, followed by the traditional post-sauna ice-bath. It worked. Both zest and herb retained their color once powdered.

Herbs in their refreshing ice-bath.

So then, the powders were all done. Whew! It was surprisingly early in the day. As in, still before the small one's nap. Instead of saving this for a post-Little-Girl-bedtime-dinner, I decided we'd eat it for lunch during her nap. So I moved on to the later stages of the recipe, which required me to keep kicking Husband off the computer so I could look at just exactly what I was supposed to do next.

Powders, clockwise from far left: lemon/lime zest; mango; cilantro-basil; red onion; chipotle.

First, I cut my green beans into cute teeny rounds. Then, I tackled my last powder. The fish is supposed to have one edge dipped in toasted spray-dried cream powder. Uh-huh. Like I have access to that in Desertville. I don't even have access to cream in Desertville. But the always-clever (and very fast) Daring Cook, Audax, came to the rescue with his idea to use powdered coconut milk for this part. And that, I do have in Desertville. It's an artifact of my life in Isolationville. The concept of paying shipping for cans of coconut milk was too much, so I started to rely on the powder instead. I sifted a packet's worth onto a Silpat and baked it for just over four minutes, until it just started to turn brown. One more step closer.

Time to make the beurre Monte. I was making so little -- just over a quarter of the full recipe -- that my water was evaporating before it could really boil. Slightly problematic, but I worked around it and ended up with a lovely emulsion. A little went into a pot with an equal amount of water for the green beans, and the rest went into a pan, again with an equal amount of water, for the fish.

The cod in barely-simmering beurre Monte sauce.

My cod was thicker than skate would have been. A bit denser, too, from what I remember of the only time I've eaten skate. So I wanted to be sure it got cooked through and the beans didn't get soggy. So once the fish was in the pan, I plated my powders (not entirely successfully, from a purely aesthetic view) and got the beans into their butter.

The plate awaiting the cod.

The beans didn't take long to get to crisp-tender. And luscious. Definitely luscious. I got them on the plate, ready for the fish. My powders were supposed to be a little more dramatic in their presentation, but I don't have a lot of dish-choice and my fish was big for the plate. I thought I had a good compromise, but it was lackluster in the end.

The final product might not have had the presentation wow-factor, but the flavors made up for it. The fish and beans were rich and buttery, while the powders, quite obviously, weren't. But they interacted with each other very nicely, almost like putting a post-cooking rub on the fish. I loved the brightness of the citrus when the bite included a good wallop of the lemon-lime powder. I loved the toasted coconut flavor and wished I had both toasted it a bit longer and used a little more.

For a dinner, it would definitely need something more. Cooked potato slices under the fish, perhaps, or a mash of cauliflower and potato. If it were one course of many -- say appetizer, salad, this, a cheese course, and a dessert, it would stand fine alone.

I don't know that I'll make this particular dish again. It was a lot of work. But I'm already finding other uses for the powders. I added the leftover onion, citrus, and herb powders to my standard flour/nutritional yeast breading for tofu. Tonight, we'll have those fried slices stacked with grilled eggplant, onion, and zucchini, with a tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.

It was a good experience and definitely a challenge, which is what I was looking for when I joined the Daring Cooks! Thanks, Sketchy!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

More Gnocchi

We enjoyed our first meet-and-greets with the ricotta gnocchi from my first Daring Cooks challenge so much that I made them again last night. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the Fresh and Easy ricotta I used last time and although the substitute I found claimed it was also fresh ricotta, it didn't get dry enough after a lot of squeezing and weighted draining. So my gnocchi were very tender. As in, fell apart if I touched them the wrong way. They were tasty because I had strained in some leftover pesto, but the texture was nothing like the clouds I had produced the first two times.

Still, they made for a tasty light supper for a hot night when served with a garlic-laced veggie broth and leftover creamed spinach. I made just fifteen of them because they tried to disintegrate in the water. I have to figure out what to do with the leftovers today. It's just nice to know that some of the Daring Kitchen challenges will become part of our regular meal rotation.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The First Corn

Our "neighbor" who lives a mere 20 miles away has a wonderful garden. He's lived in the same house for over a decade now, so he's had a chance to build up good organics in the soil and to experiment to find what works and what doesn't. His experience is only partly helpful to me because we're more than 2000 feet higher in elevation than he is, so our temperatures and frosts and such are completely different. However, we do benefit from his generosity. Last week, he sent bags of produce home with Husband. Loads of onions and green beans, smaller quantities of other lovelies, and a big bag of corn, picked that afternoon. You can imagine that my dinner plans suddenly involved corn.

I shucked the husks into my sink while boiling the water.

After a very brief bath in the pot, the corn was ready to eat. Some of the kernels were tiny, but still packed great flavor. Butter, salt, and pepper were all they wore. And because corn was the star and Husband loves fake bacon, we just had simple fake bacon sandwiches with the corn. Summer must really be upon us now.