Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cookbook #9: San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market Cookbook

Adapted from Cookbook #9:  San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market Cookbook  (2006)

Recipe: Swiss Chard Flan

Okay, tell me that when you read that recipe title, you didn't just do a double take.  That's what I did.  In fact, I may have gasped, "Flan?  Isn't that a fantastic Mexican dessert?  Why does it have the words Swiss Chard in front of it?"

Times like these, I wonder why I ever chose page 210.  What had I gotten myself into?

I guess I had to make Swiss Chard Flan.

Luckily, this flan didn't come with a crème caramel topping or a puff pastry shell.  In fact, it was a remarkably savory bit of tasty goodness.

The husband is not a fan of the runny egg--so much so that he orders poached eggs as well done as possible--so we had to make some modifications to this one.  I decided not to make this really a flan; I made it a frittata instead.  A little less wiggle and a whole lot more happiness from everyone involved.  Besides, it just sounds a little more appetizing.  Swiss Chard Frittata.

But before we begin cooking, let's begin with the swiss chard shopping.  This recipe is one for those of you with a CSA or a local farmer's market.  Currently greens are in season and will be for another couple of weeks:  Swiss chard, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, you name it.  We're always looking for new ways to cook them.  A year ago the husband and I signed up for a CSA box (a little shout out to Full Belly Farm!).  Every week, we were inundated with fantastic produce.  But the sheer amount was a little overwhelming.  Seriously. The greens.  And the root vegetables.  We had to stop the box (long, terribly uninteresting story), but luckily we live a block (down a really cute path) from our local Sunday farmer's market and a BART ride away from the Saturday San Francisco Ferry Building farmer's market.  So this past Sunday the husband and I grabbed the umbrella and put on our hoodies to walk down to the local farmer's market.  While rainy, the market was filled with color, including some of the first tulips of the season.

We wandered around, sampling the strawberries (?) and apple cider and ducking under the awnings to avoid the rain.  After shivering for about twenty minutes and pricing out the best chard, we came away with our requisite two bunches of the rainbow variety. 

This recipe comes from a cookbook that encourages local, in-season cooking.  The Ferry Building's farmer's market is pretty phenomenal.  According to their website, around 15,000 people venture into the building and its surrounding plaza to select their local fruits, meats, and veggies every Saturday.  Pop into Cowgirl Creamery, and it's a complete morning.   The San Francisco farmer's market hasn't been around that long.  In its current incarnation, it has been open only since 2003, but it feels as if it has been there forever.  It does stem from an earlier form, opened in 1992, after the Embarcadero and the waterfront were revitalized after the Loma Prieta earthquake.  Out of tragedy comes triumph.  Or at least really good food.

The cookbook itself is organized by season, which is pretty handy, and has beautiful pictures.  You can tuck it into your canvas bag and walk around any farmer's market's stalls, determining if you really need that parsnip.  But my favorite feature about this cookbook is that it gives you a full rundown of how to store and prepare all of the fruits and veggies.  We found this exceptionally handy when we got those huge amounts of radishes, rutabagas, radicchio and rhubarb from the CSA.

Okay, now back to the recipe: 

This was surprisingly good.  I added an egg to the original recipe and reduced some of the dairy products (they called for 1.5 cups!).  Normally, when I make a frittata, I make it a little less fat, and I think you could make some modifications to what you'll find below (low fat milk would be where I would start).  But most importantly, we have rediscovered that if you cover anything with eggs and cheese, you really cannot go wrong.  

3-4 Servings

2 bunches swiss chard, stems removed and discarded, and leaves chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
6 large eggs
1/4 cup half and half
1/4 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

1.   Heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of an oven-proof skillet (we used a wrought iron skillet, our go-to skillet for frittatas)  Add the onion and garlic and coo, stirring occasionally, until tender and translucent, about three minutes.  Add the Swiss chard leaves, cover and cook for about 7-10 minutes.  If the mixture becomes too dry, add a few splashes of water.

2.  While the chard cooks, crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk in the cream and half and half.

3.  Preheat the broiler.  When the chard is ready, remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Spread the chard mixture out evenly.  Pour the egg mixture over the chard and season with salt and pepper.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover.  Cook until the mixture has just set, about ten minutes.  As the mixture cooks, occasionally pull the edges away from the skillet to ensure even cooking.

4.  Remove the flan from the heat and sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top.  Cook the flan under the broiler to brown, watching the flan carefully so it does not burn.

5.  Remove the flan from the broiler and loosen the edges with a knife or spatula.  If the flan still seems too loose, return it to the broiler to another minute.  Serve directly from the pan, cutting it into wedges, or slip it onto a serving plate and then cut into wedges.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cookbook #8: The New Book of Middle Eastern Food

Adapted from Cookbook #8:  The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (my edition is 2005, originally published in 1968)

Recipe:  Frakh Ma'amra (Mediterranean Pigeons or Squabs Stuffed with Couscous)

__________ is to Middle Eastern Food as Julia Child is to French Food:

Do you remember these from the SAT?  At least then you got a multiple choice selection.  But here the only name worthy of filling in that blank is truly Claudia Roden, who stands heads and shoulders above the rest (although I suppose doing so over the tall Ms. Child would be difficult.  Nonetheless.  You get the cliché). This cookbook was first printed in 1968 and has since undergone a new, updated overhaul.  The introduction in this book is a culinary historian's dream.  Roden discusses Muslim Spain, Court Cuisine in the 10th century, and the Sassanid influence on the Middle Eastern palate from the third through seventh century, among other historical tidbits.  Roden knows her history because it connects to the stories which are told over food, thus inextricably linking narrative and cuisine.  Just how I like it.  Something other than just food is being passed down to you.  This little Moroccan dish comes with a tale of a Casablancan woman who normally takes six hours to make a dish and of her Americanized daughter who insists that this dish--or any dish for that matter--should not take so long.  Thankfully, this one takes about an hour.

Let's learn a little about the pigeon, shall we?  Squab, or a young pigeon, has a rich tradition in Ancient Asian, Egyptian, Roman, and Medieval European traditions and is considered a delicacy of pharaohs, kings, and emperors.  While still very popular in the everyday cuisine of the Middle East, in the US, squab is considered haute cuisine served at fancy restaurants such as the French Laundry or as a staple in Chinese New Year traditions (served deep fried).  But it delights me to no end that in California there is a full blown association bringing you the joys of the pigeon.

Pigeons have been up there on my list of recipes I skip over when I thumb through a cookbook.  Growing up in the Midwest, I was not often offered pigeon for dinner.  And I admit, it is somewhat startling to know that I am eating a bird that is only about one month old, which has reached its adult size but has not yet flown (thus making it nice and tender).  And boy, did the husband pay through the nose to acquire our two little flightless birds: a full 22 dollars for the both--in part because we have purchased them, squab virgins that we are, out of season.  Summer is the season for squab.  With that price tag, though, I hope that squab doesn't show up on too many more pages 210.  Further, this evening I had to come to terms with the fact that I am not a vegetarian.  Squab come with their heads and feet attached.  I know that chickens have heads and feet.  I know that pigs do, too, but I admit, I do take perhaps too much comfort in not having to confront those facts when I cook either of them.  Not the case with squab.  And so, I had to acknowledge the head and feet of this bird, and then promptly chop them off.

Finally, let me digress:  I once had a pigeon land on my head in Trafalgar Square.  I was 20.  It was my first time in Europe.  I had just had my heart broken, and I could feel the talons of the bird on my scalp.  There is a picture of me laughing, my eyes lit up in a sort of tourist glow, a pink scarf wrapped around my face.  And it was on that trip I decided that I would not live in Ohio for the rest of my life.

There is great joy for me in the pigeon.

However, there is less joy in consuming the pigeon.  The pigeon is a gamey little bird; surprisingly so for its size and its lack of flight.  I spent the first 35 years of my life squabless.  I imagine that I will spend the next 35 squabless as well.  However, if you like game, it is fruity and big.  Which is good, seeing as the squab does not produce a lot of meat.  So dig in, game lovers.  This is the little bird for you.

4 servings

For the stuffing
2 cups quick-cooking couscous
1-2 tablespoons superfine sugar
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons orange-blossom water
3 tablespoons raisin, soaking in warm water for 10 minutes
1 cup blanched almonds
2 tablespoons butter

For the birds
4 Mediterranean pigeons or squabs
3 tablespoons butter or sunflower oil
1 1/2 large onions, finely chopped or grates
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/3 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon saffron
salt and plenty of pepper
2 tablespoons honey


1.  To prepare the stuffing, moisten the couscous with 2 cups warm salted water.  Stir well, so that it is evenly absorbed.  After about 10 minutes, stir in the sugar, 2 tablespoons of the oil, the cinnamon, and the orange-blossom water, and rub between your hands so as to break up any lumps.  Add the drained raisins.  Fry the almonds in the remaining oil, coarsely chap them, and stir them into the couscous.

2.  Fill each pigeon or squab with about 3 tablespoons stuffing.  They should not be too tightly packed, or the stuffing may burst out.  Sew up the skin at both ends with cotton thread (or use toothpicks to secure), and reserve the remaining stuffing.

3.  In a wide and heavy saucepan, put the 3 tablespoons butter or oil, the onions, garlic, cinnamon, ginger, saffron, and salt.  Add about 1 1/4 cups water and the stuffed pigeons or squabs.

4.  Simmer gently, covered, for about 30 minutes, until the birds are tender, adding more water if necessary and turning them over at least one, ending up breast down, so that they are well impregnated with sauce.  Lift one (to make a little room) and stir in the honey.  Then return to the pan and continue to cook until the flesh is tender.  [Seriously, how much do you love that Roden asks us to impregnate the pigeons!?  I love her almost florid writing.]

5.  At the same time, heat the remaining stuffing in a baking dish covered with foil in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  Then stir in the butter.

6.  To serve, make a mound of the stuffing and place the birds on top.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cookbook #7: Wok & Stir Fry: Fabulous Fast Food with Asian Flavors

Adapted from Cookbook #7:  Wok & Stir Fry: Fabulous Fast Food with Asian Flavors (2003)

Recipe:  Stir-fried Rice Noodles with Chicken and Shrimp

I bought this cookbook because we own a wok.  We don't need a wok.  And yet, there it is, taunting us.  So I acquired this cookbook in an attempt to toss together some fast recipes.

It was bound to happen.  This one was a dud.  While this faux- (pho?) Phat Thai (Pad Thai) is a fine weeknight meal, it pales in comparison to real Phat Thai, and so this meal is just plain sad.  True Phat Thai has tamarind sauce and more sugar and lime juice, but this one was bland, boring, tame.  So if you feel inspired to make this, double, nay triple (okay, maybe not triple), all the yummy sauces because that's what makes good Phat Thai.   That wonderful blend of salty, sweet and sour.

Apparently Phat Thai was originally brought to Thailand from Vietnam, became a cheap staple for the working people, then morphed into the go-to-food for busy Bangkok businessmen and women, converted itself into a night market staple, and then evolved into the most popular Thai dish in America.   The husband and I are huge fans of Thai food.  We used to live in Richmond and often on weeknights would head to San Pablo Avenue to a great little Thai place:  I am not sure I ever knew the name of the place.  All I know is that they had plastic coverings over the tables, handwritten specials on faded construction paper, and an elaborate aquarium that dominated the room.   They always served my favorite starter, shrimp chips (seriously, the best shrimp-flavored Styrofoam ever),  and always had some ridiculous salmon curry and an astonishing coconut ice cream for dessert.   Go ahead and pit any no name Thai place against any fancy-shmancy Thai restaurant, and the no name place will almost always win.

While the low budget restaurants will surely win, the low budget cookbooks do not.  In the future, I will be cooking from the best Thai cookbook that has been written:  Thai Food.  It’s author, David Thompson, is heroic, but much more about that cookbook later this year.  Instead, tonight’s cookbook did what it needed to do:  it produced a quick and easy, albeit underwhelming, meal.  But the next time we make Phat Thai, we'll crack open the Thompson book or head up to Richmond.

4 servings

8 ounces dried flat rice noodles
1/2 cup water
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon paprika
pinch of cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
 1 skinless, boneless chicken breast, finely sliced
8 raw shrimp, peeled, deveined, and cut in half
1 large egg
1/2 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely crushed
3 scallions, cut into short lengths
6 ounces bean sprouts
cilantro leaves
1 lime cut into wedges for garnish

1. Place the rice noodles in a large bowl, cover with warm water, and soak for 30 minutes until soft.  Drain.

2.  Combine the water, fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, paprika and cayenne in a small bowl.  Set aside until required.

3.  Heat the oil in a wok.  Add the garlic, and fry for 30 seconds until it starts to brown.  Add the chicken and shrimp, and stir-fry for 3-4 minutes until cooked.

4.  Push the chicken and shrimp mixture in the wok out to the sides.  Break the egg in the center, then quickly stir to break up the yolk.  Cook over a medium heat until the eff is just lightly scrambled.

5.  Add the drained noodles and the fish sauce mixture to the wok.  Mix together well.  Add half the crushed peanuts, and cook, stirring frequently, until the noodles are soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed.

6.  Add the scallions and half the bean sprouts.  Cook, stirring, for one minute more.  Spoon onto a platter.  Sprinkle with the remaining peanuts and bean sprouts.  Garnish with the cilantro and lime wedges, and serve.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cookbook #6: Bruce Aidell's Complete Book of Pork

Adapted from Cookbook #6:  Bruce Aidells's Complete Book of Pork (2004)

Recipe: Carnitas

Carnitas:  Spanish for "little meats."  And Bruce Aidells--Bay Area king of meat--would be one to trust with the "little meats."  Aidells founded Aidells Sausage Company in 1983 to supply restaurants and the layperson in the Bay Area with quality sausages (seriously, the Chicken Apple Sausage is a staple for our summertime grill).  My husband almost drooled when he found this cookbook, as he is not only a fan of Aidells, but he is a fan of all things meat related.  So much so, he's known by name and by choice of cut at our local butcher.  This is a cookbook that pleases the palate as well as the husband.

Here's what pleases the wife, however.  Bear with me; this may seem a digression, but I promise to bring it back to the pig.  I am reading Ulysses this year for the first time.  I challenged my students to read it with me, and two students and one parent have intrepidly taken me up on my offer:  we read about 30 pages a week, meet for 45 minutes to ponder all that we do not understand, and then tuck in for another 30 pages.  Every week, I spend hours reading (last week it took me five hours to decipher the alotted hebdomadal quota), and I have two guide books, leading me with annotations and allusions.  But I am taken aback time and again by the genius of this book.  There's something satisfying that goes beyond understanding all the allusions:  it's something reverential.  Currently, and quite serendipitously, we are on the Circe chapter.  Circe, of course, is the enchantress in The Odyssey who turned all of Odysseus' men to swine.   Oh, Odysseus, who must take the holy moly to protect himself from porcine transformation himself, who worries about his manhood being stripped from him, who remains on the island and in Circe's bed for a year while his men root and eat acorns, little pigs that they are, little pig that Odysseus is.  Only to be replicated in Joyce's Bloom, wallowing in the mire of whorehouses and the ever-so-dangerous female sexuality, poor Bloom the innocent victim--so he would claim--of women's sexual appetites as he indulges his own.  What a pig.  And truly, what a pleasure to read.  Hog heaven, indeed.

There's hardly any overt connection between Ulysses and this recipe, but I am curious about the indulgences we satisfy.   Now we have our own shredded pig to eat as we prepare for another marker in American culinary excess:  The Super Bowl.  And you better believe that this Sunday we'll be planted in front of our television, nachos in hand, watching the game.  Our nachos will have that little bit of carnitas flair.  That is assuming that we still have some left this weekend.  It's difficult to keep four cups of shredded meat around our house.

Finally, I learned something important in this recipe: I learned to trust Bruce Aidells, our guide and meat mentor.  I upped the cumin, coriander, and chili powder (I used 3 teaspoons of cumin and ancho chili powder and 1.5 of coriander) because the rub didn't seem adequate to cover three pounds of meat, and our version is, well, a little spicy.  Thankfully we like spicy.  But you should just trust Aidells on this one, because I imagine his version is a little more subtle.

I served this with heated corn tortillas, guacamole, salsa fresca and queso cotija.  And let's face it--this is going to be all gone by Friday, let alone Sunday, little pigs that we are.

About 4 cups

2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons pasilla chili powder (or any other whole chili powder, such as ancho chili)
3 pounds boneless Boston butt, cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch pieces, trimmed of visible fat
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 large onion, diced

1.  To make the rub:  In a medium bowl, combine the cumin to chili powder.

2.  Add the pork to the rub and toss well to coat.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or up to 48 hours.

3.  In a large, deep covered skillet or casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Working in small batches to prevent overcrowding the pan, cook the pork until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes.  Transfer the pork with a slotted spoon as it is cooked to a plate and continue cooking the remaining pieces.  When all the pork is browned, set the pot aside, leaving the fat and juices in it.  Do not drain.

4.  In a small bowl or measuring cup, stir the vinegar with the honey until the honey dissolves.  Stir in the chicken stock and add the mixture to the pot, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom.  Add the onion and bring the liquid to a boil over high heat.  Lower the heat to maintain a simmer, return the pork to the pot, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pork is fork-tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.

5.  Remove the cover and increase the heat slightly to maintain a lively simmer.  Continue to cook until the liquid has evaporated and the fat from the pork is bubbling, about 30 minutes.  As soon as the pork begins to brown, stir regularly to prevent burning.  The pork is done when it has become golden to dark brown and is nicely crisped.  Remove the pot from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.  Transfer the pork with a slotted spoon to a rimmed baking sheet lined with paper towels.

6.  At this point, the cooled pork can be shredded by hand, chopped with a knife, or left as is, with a mixture of large and small pieces.  Usually the meat is seasoned with nothing more than salt, then cut up or shredded and eaten either wrapped in tortillas as tacos or burritos, or used as a filling for a Mexican sandwich called a torta.  The meat can be eaten as is, shredded, or chapped and topped with fresh tomato salsa, some marinated onions, and a scoop of guacamole.