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Friday, February 24, 2012

The Grail of Ingredients

Looking back at my first blog entries, I kind of want to cringe.

I didn't even sound like myself, but some weird, stilted version of myself.  I appear not to have had a sense of humor when I blogged about how I wanted to learn to cook serious Italian food and planned to use two cookbooks to guide me when doing it.  They aren't even my go-to cookbooks these days.  Sigh.

A16 Food + Wine is a great cookbook, don't get me wrong, but it assumes that you have all day to cook your dish and the bounty of San Francisco's markets at your fingertips.  

When my parents came up to visit at the end of last summer, I gave them a short list of some of the more esoteric ingredients to see if they could wrangle them at one of St. Louis' old-school Italian markets since St. Louis has a great old Italian neighborhood (for an entry about exploring that neighborhood, go here).

There was one ingredient that stumped even those markets:  bottarga.

Funny, it doesn't look like it's worth its weight in gold.
Bottarga is, according to A16, pressed mullet or tuna roe, although it now appears that it can be made of the roe from other fish.  I finally encountered it shaved over a salad at the restaurant Beast in Portland.  There's no mistaking it once you know what it tastes like:  salty and of the sea somehow.  Salmon roe has a similar taste, although it's not as intense as caviar.  You either like it or you don't.

Last Sunday morning before leaving Seattle, David and I stocked up on all things Italian at DeLaurenti's, a terrific Italian grocery at Pike Place Market (the coffee bar there, FYI, is terrific).  There, in the case with the salumi and cheese, was a hunk of bottarga.  I practically expired at the price, which was over $200 a pound or some such craziness.

We bought a tiny piece and brought it home to experiment.  This recipe from A16 is marked by its relative ease, although it assumes you have made your own oven-dried tomatoes.  I have adapted it to use storebought sun-dried tomatoes.  The bottarga is unnecessary to enjoy the dish, and vegetarians could leave it out. 

Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Bottarga
Adapted from A16 Food + Wine

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3 small peperoncini peppers, crushed
2 cups sun-dried tomato halves, cut in half
1/2 cup vegetarian or chicken stock
12 ounces fresh or dried pasta, preferably angel hair or bucatini
1/2 oz. bottarga

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat, then add the olive oil.  When the oil is warm, add the garlic and peperoncini, stirring occasionally, until the garlic just starts to take color.

If using dried pasta, put it on now and cook until al dente.  Add the tomatoes to the saucepan and cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes or until they have softened considerably.  About halfway through the cooking process, add the stock.

If using fresh pasta, start it now and cook for approximately a minute.  When the pasta, either fresh or dried, is cooked, reserve about a cup of the pasta water.  If the tomato mixture looks dry, add a couple of tablespoons of the pasta cooking liquid to reach the desired consistency, just thick enough to coat the pasta.

Combine the cooked pasta with the sauce and toss to coat the pasta strands.  Shave the bottarga over the pasta when it is either on a serving platter or in individual bowls.

Makes four main-course servings or six pasta course servings.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Vintage Gourmet: Prawn Curry

As a movie buff, I am following the whole discussion about The Help with great interest.  This isn't a new discussion, of course, but it seems to have risen as a topic of conversation again because the movie is up for a number of Oscars this weekend, and Viola Davis and/or Octavia Spencer may actually win.

The issue is partially who has the authenticity and the right to tell the story of African-American maids in the 1960s South, and also whether it is demeaning for prominent actresses to have to play maids at this point in their careers.

I'm not participating in this debate, other than to say I'm always happy to see Viola Davis in any role and she gave a great interview on NPR where she talked about drawing on her mother's experiences as a maid.  The movie itself was kind of a meh for me despite some good acting.
The interesting question to my mind is this:  what is authentic? 

I swear that long segue has something to do with cooking.  Last week, I decided to make a prawn curry, mostly because I'd had a not-great chicken curry at an Asian-fusion restaurant the week before that was totally ruined by the addition of a liberal handful of pineapple tidbits.

Surely, I thought, I could make something more authentic than that.  But really, I'm not sure that I did, particularly after reading the terrific curry recipes written by some of my fellow bloggers.

I will say this:  it tasted awfully good, authentic or not.  A warning on the heat quotient:  I left the seeds in the bird peppers, but omitted them from the habanero.  It was what I'd called medium spicy, not for the faint of heart but not requiring either David or I to fan our mouths in pain.

Prawn Curry
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, August 2008

1 small red bird pepper, minced
1 small yellow bird pepper, minced
1 small orange habanero pepper, seeds omitted, minced
1 tsp. good-quality hot curry powder (I used Penzey's)
1 tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and minced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 1/2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tsp. whole mustard seeds
1 tsp. whole coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
1 medium onion, sliced
1 can light coconut milk
1 1/2 pounds large prawns, peeled

Warm a large skillet over medium heat, then add the oil.  When the oil is shimmering, add the chiles, curry powder, garlic and ginger.  Cook, stirring frequently until the chiles are softened.

Add the mustard and coriander seeds, cumin and turmeric and cook, stirring frequently, until the seeds start to pop.

Add the onion and cook for about another five minutes, stirring occasionally, until it starts to go limp.  Then add the coconut milk and stir to combine the ingredients.  Cook until the milk is reduced slightly, about five minutes.

Add the shrimp and cook until they are bright pink and cooked through, about five to seven minutes.  Taste for seasoning and serve hot with jasmine or basmati rice.  I added a few drops of sesame oil to the rice for a little additional depth of flavor.

Serves four as a main course.

Monday, February 20, 2012

That's Amore

I ate my way across Seattle.  Or the Belltown portion of it, anyway.

David and I just returned from spending a long weekend in Seattle.  We ate a fantastic dinner with my friend Jimmy and his partner John at Sitka and Spruce, had goat tagine at Lola and ate perhaps the world's best English muffins at Dahlia Bakery.  Oh, yes, we also went to a play at the Seattle Rep, haunted Pike Place market and went to the Seattle and Frye art museums.  But back to the food.

Artisan English muffin with scrambled egg, goat cheese and spinach, aka Heaven.
But the best part of the trip:  pizza.  Specifically, the pizza at Serious Pie.  Reader, I went back more than once--and pizza is not one of my favorite foods. 

This pizza is thin-crusted, blistered in a wood-fired oven and topped with organic ingredients, some locally sourced.  I tried the pizza with buffalo mozzarella, crushed tomatoes and olive oil, pizza with hedgehog mushrooms, cheese and truffle salt and pizza with duck confit and braised leeks.  They were all brilliant.

The menu is small, just six pizzas, a few appetizers including house-cured salumi and a few desserts.  It also has a small wine and beer list, featuring mostly Italian wines and Pacific Northwest beers. 

Serious Pie is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.;  it doesn't take reservations and depending on the hour may have a line going out the door.  Hit it near opening or after 1 p.m. on a weekday and just be prepared to wait on the weekends.  Seating is limited to 48 and is at six long communal tables.  The space is tight and noisy, but worth it for the food.

Details:  Serious Pie, 4th and Virginia in the Belltown neighborhood. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Great Expectations

It's really hard to work against expectations.

If I said "biscotti," you might think about the teeth-chipping, ridiculously hard cookies served at your local Starbucks.  (No real offense to Starbucks--it has its place.  In airports, primarily.)  It's typically a long, slender cookie that takes a dunking in a hot beverage to become really good.

Or, even more menacingly, it is a cookie coated so liberally with chocolate that your fingers are smeared before it even approaches a hot beverage.

I'm not a fan of either option, but when you tell people you've made biscotti, they expect one of those two things.  Whereas these biscotti will delight your senses--I've never smelled dough quite this fragrant, I kid you not--but they are round, a little soft and look nothing like what people have come to expect.

I'll stand by the authenticity of the consistency and shape of these cookies, which are adapted from a recipe by Lidia Bastianich.  The flavors?  They just happen to be what excited me on Sunday morning.  A batch went to the neighbors who have been nice enough to lend us their snowblower these last few snowy weeks, and another batch came to my office, where no one knew what to make of them until they had one, at which point they were sold.

Because my Sunday was busier than expected, I made the dough that day and refrigerated it overnight.  The result was very hard and very cold, which meant that I could roll it out and then skip the step of returning it to the refrigerator before baking.  If you do it this way, just roll it out quickly and pop the cookies into the oven.

Orange-Toasted Pecan Biscotti
Technique from Lidia's Italy in America by Lidia Bastianich

1 large orange, zested and juiced
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped coarsely
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
3 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tbsp. lemon juice

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.  In a stand mixer, beat together the sugar and butter until pale yellow.  Turn the mixer to low and add the eggs individually, mixing well after each addition.

Add the vanilla, lemon and orange juice and zest and mix just to combine, then add the nuts.  Remove the bowl from the stand mixer and securely cover with plastic wrap.  Put the bowl in the refrigerator for at least one hour or overnight.

After the dough is chilled, divide it into four chunks and roll each out into a log about ten inches long on a floured surface.  If you have only chilled the dough for an hour, it will probably be soft by this point--you will need to return it to the refrigerator for about twenty minutes.  If you chilled the dough overnight, you can skip this step and cut each roll into half-inch slices.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the slices on cookie sheets covered with parchment paper.  Bake for eighteen to twenty minutes, switching out the cookie sheets halfway through.  The cookies will be done when pale golden brown.

Makes approximately sixty cookies.

Monday, February 13, 2012

On My Bookshelf: Let Us Eat Cake

It's been a while since I have done a review of food literature on this blog--well, it's been a while since I've been reading much food lit.  It's not that I haven't been reading, just that I've been wanting to cook food more than wanting to read about it.

When I was in Portland for the marathon last year, I went a little nutty at Powell's, also known as the best indie bookstore in the U.S., in my opinion.  Is there anything similar to Powell's in Seattle?  If so, let me know and I will hit it when I travel there this weekend.  Also, if anyone has Seattle restaurant recommendations, let me have 'em!

Photo from

I read Sharon Boorstin's Let Us Eat Cake:  Adventures in Food & Friendship on a business trip last month.  Essentially, it's a remembrance of friends told through the foods that they ate together at rehearsal dinners, baby showers and catching-up dinners.  All the usual suspects are here: stories of women being taught to cook by their mothers in the 1950s in preparation for marriage, single-girl dinners made in an effort to attract mean, dinners with long-lost friends and, most movingly, the story of a dinner with a friend dying of cancer.

Let's be honest:  the cover of this book is pink and it starts off fairly girly.  There was a point at which I almost stopped reading because the book felt more like the coming of age of a writer I wasn't particularly interested in rather than the promised chronicle of food and friendship.  But miraculously, maybe a third of the way in, it becomes something better and deeper that, while told through a woman's perspective, isn't particularly girly.  It becomes about how food binds us, eases conversations that would otherwise be difficult and brings unlikely people to the same table. 

That isn't a girly experience at all.  What is your best memory of bonding over food?  I have lots of them, but the one that comes to mind right now is the first dinner I had with my husband.  We walked into a restaurant as casual friends (it wasn't even a date), but when I walked out I knew I wanted to spend a lot more time with him.  Discuss your own memories below...I look forward to hearing about them.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nesting Instinct

I love living in Anchorage.  Very little gets cancelled when there are several feet of snow, but "slippery conditions" that seem to be very similar to yesterday's slippery conditions have shut down a large portion of the city schools.  Maybe I'm just being grumpy because I'd like to stay home today, too.

I really should take the computer cables
out of the background before taking
photos, shouldn't I?
It's been great to be home most evenings this week now that Love, Loss has closed.  I start rehearsals for my next directing project in a couple of weeks, but in the interim I am doing what I like to call "nesting."  As in, cleaning the house, catching up on the bad television I didn't see while I was performing (thanks, Hulu!), reading and cooking.

This recipe is an adaptation of one for sashimi that I received from Iron Horse, the Sonoma winery.  The recipes are often lovely but a little complicated.  I'm sure someone has Madras curry oil in their pantry, but it sure isn't the majority of their consumers.  With a little punting, though, this became a fantastic light main dish.  I just wish I'd had a colorful sauce to use as well.  Next time!

Seared Yellowfin Tuna with Curry Oil and Soy Glaze
Adapted from a Recipe by Chef Ming Tsai

1 lb. yellowfin tuna fillets, pounded to 1/4 inch thickness
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. curry powder or curry powder blend (I used Penzey's Singapore Seasoning Blend)
Sea salt and pepper
1 shallot, minced
1 cup low-sodium soy sauce
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 tbsp. brown sugar

Once you have pounded the tuna, cut into four servings.  Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper and return to the refrigerator.

In a small pot, combine the lime juice, soy sauce and brown sugar and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Then reduce heat to medium and cook for about a half hour, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has reduced to about a fourth of its original volume.  Once it is finished, set it aside to cool and then pour it into a squeeze bottle.

In a ramekin or measuring cup, combine the olive oil and curry powder.  Stir and set aside until needed.

After the soy mixture has been cooking for about twenty minutes, warm a large saucepan over medium heat and remove the tuna from the refrigerator.  Add the curry oil to the saucepan, stirring to ensure even distribution of the spices, which will want to separate from the oil.  When the oil is warm, add the shallot and saute for about two to three minutes, until it is softened.  Remove the shallot from the pan and set aside.

Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the tuna steaks.  Sear them briefly, about a minute on each side, which will leave them just pink in the center.

Drizzle the plates with the soy glaze.  If desired,  dot any remaining curry oil on the plates too.  Plate the fish with a small portion of the shallots on top and serve with rice and a side of steamed or stir-fried vegetables.

Serves four as a light main dish.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Paying It Forward

At the outset, I want to thank three of my fellow bloggers, all of whom awarded me the Liebster Blog Award for new blogs with fewer than two hundred followers:  thanks to GermanMama at From Arepas to Zwetschgen, Jess at On Sugar Mountain and Soni from Soni's Food for Thought

I love these three very different blogs.  Soni is cooking up world cuisine with a heavy Indian influence, and the chocolate dessert she just posted is drool-worthy.  Jess is a student at Rutgers determined to become a master baker, and has a wicked sense of humor.  GermanMama hosts a monthly "Cook Around the Globe" event that spotlights lesser-known world cuisines.  Thanks to all of you for the blog love!

One of the conditions of the award is that I name five of my favorite blogs in return, and send them this award too.  Several of the blogs that I read are now too big and well-known for the award, so I'd like to name several of my favorite fellow upstarts (or start-ups, if you insist, Michael):

Pate a Chew @ Pate a Chew

Please check out their wonderful blogs!  Back tomorrow with a seared tuna recipe with a soy-lime glaze.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Messing with a Classic

Am I ever not prepared for it to be Monday. 

Love, Loss closed yesterday after a great run.  I'm really going to miss those ladies--it's one of the best times I've ever had acting in a show.  At the cast party on Saturday, the actress who played Gingy said "You know, I really like those cookies you made a couple of years ago."

I'm sure you've had this happen;  cue the guessing game where it takes about five minutes to determine exactly which cookie the person is talking about, both because it was years ago and because you have made so many different types of cookies that it isn't immediately apparent which one it could be.  In this case, it turned out that it was madeleines.

I've never read Proust, but I'll give him credit for fixating on the madeleine.  It's a soft, buttery cookie with a hint of lemon and, ideally, a little bit of a crisp brown texture to the exterior.  In short, it's a little bit of sunshine in cookie form.

When well-chilled, the batter develops sort of crust on top that
gives when you push down on it.  That's a good sign that it's ready to go.
The key to madeleines is to chill the batter really well, for at least three hours.  The batter takes all of ten minutes to put together, and then you want to make the cookies right away.  However, chilling the batter gives it a consistency that really makes a difference in the cookies. 

Although I had the ingredients for a classic madeleine, I wanted to try something a little different and substituted grapefruit zest for the lemon and honey for part of the sugar.  The result had a slightly floral quality from the honey, although the grapefruit substitution wasn't obvious. 

Grapefruit Honey Madeleines
Adapted from Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp. honey
4 tsp. vanilla extract
10 tbsp. melted butter, at room temperature
Zest of one large ruby grapefruit

Combine the sifted flour and baking powder in a small bowl.  In the bowl of a stand mixer using the whisk attachment, beat together the butter and eggs until they are pale yellow.  Then add the grapefruit zest, honey and vanilla and mix briefly.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the flour/baking powder mixture.  Then fold in the butter mixture--it will look like it doesn't want to incorporate, but eventually will.

Press a large piece of plastic wrap right onto the batter and refrigerate the bowl for at least three hours.

When you are ready to make the cookies, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Depending on the type of mold you are using, prepare it--I have a silicone mold and just spritz it with a touch of baking spray with flour.

Fill the molds almost full with batter.  The great thing about these cookies is that you don't have to spread the batter in the molds particularly well--the batter will spread to fill the molds while baking.

Bake for approximately 13-14 minutes, until the cookies have risen and turned golden.  If you touch the cookie, it should spring back a bit when done.  Cool the cookies on a baking rack.

Makes 24 madeleines, enough for David to take to a Super Bowl party and to feed a cast and crew of seven.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Are You Ready for Some Football?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am not a football fan.

I grew up in football country.  My lack of attention to the football games of my high school years, in which I played in the marching band but yet never managed to absorb the rules of the game, is infamous.  My master's degree is from the University of Nebraska, one of the famous football schools.  I didn't go to a single game while I was there, although in my defense I was working two jobs in addition to my classes. 

David and I are invited to Super Bowl parties every year, and if I don't have other plans I'll tag along and read a book, glancing up occasionally at the commercials.  This too has earned me much mocking.

This year I don't have to endure the mocking, as the final show of Love, Loss and What I Wore is on Sunday afternoon.  I'm hoping that our audience will be a big group of women who ditched their husbands/significant others in front of the television and yelled "I'm going to go have some fun with the girls--don't wait up for me!" as as they raced out the door.

However, when I was deciding what to post next, this was the clear winner--an easy, totally delicious finger food that is as at home at a Super Bowl party as it was at the New Year's Eve party where they disappeared in the blink of an eye.

The key here is really good-quality sausage.  The original recipe calls for lamb sausage, but I substituted a spicy chicken andouille.  It would be interesting with a good chicken apple sausage, but whatever you use, make sure it has some personality.

Haute Pigs in Blankets
Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten

4 large links andouille sausage (about 1 lb.)
2 sheets puff pastry, thawed
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 egg
1 tbsp. milk

Whisk together the egg and milk and set aside.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and place the sausages on a  cookie sheet.  Bake sausage until cooked through, about 20-25 minutes, turning halfway through.

While the sausage is baking, place the sheets of puff pastry on a floured surface so the pastry won't stick.  Slice each sheet of pastry in half lengthwise and brush with the Dijon mustard.

When the sausage is cooled, place one link on each length of puff pastry.  Roll it up, covering the entirety of each sausage and brushing the ends with the egg wash and pinching them to thoroughly seal the bundles.  If there is extra puff pastry on the ends, trim it off.  Repeat with the other sausages.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and space the sausage rolls out on it.  Brush the tops of the rolls with the remaining egg wash and lightly score the tops of the rolls into 6-7 pieces.

Bake for approximately 20 minutes, until the rolls are browned.  Cool for about five minutes, slice and serve.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You

Some of you know that I had a small part in a Drew Barrymore movie that was filmed in Alaska in fall 2010.  Over the past few months, it's been a total kick to see the trailer, and then the commercial.  If you don't blink, I appear in both of them--look for the kids sitting in front of the television set and I'm the mother sitting behind them.  I literally shrieked when I saw the trailer for the first time, something along the lines of "OHMYGODTHEREIAM!"

This Friday, the movie comes out.  I'm a little scared to see it--I hate how I look in photos, much less larger than life on a movie screen.  If you see me, just remember that the camera adds ten pounds, and the mom jeans don't help either.

The studio was nice enough to do a screening this past Sunday for the Alaska-based cast and crew.  I had a matinee of Love, Loss and missed the screening, but it's a good, family-friendly film with an obvious animal rights message. 

My proud parents (I swear, they haven't been this excited since I graduated from law school) tell me they're heading to a movie theatre in St. Louis this weekend, but it's going to be a week or so before I go see it.

If you see it, let me know what you think!