Sunday, November 30, 2014

Tortilla Espanola with Charred Red Peppers

A colleague of mine recommended this cookbook, and as I have attested, I love soup. How could I pass up another cookbook devoted to soup? Especially a vegetarian cookbook devoted to soup?

Yet the irony is that while I bought the book for the soup, the first recipe I made was for non-soup.

I had eggs. I had potatoes. I needed to use both. So Spanish tortilla became a siren sound, and here we are.

You might recognize the name Anna Thomas, as she also wrote Vegetarian Epicure (the bible for vegetarians in the 70s written while Thomas herself was in college) and The New Vegetarian Epicure. Back in my working in the bookstore days, I shelved both of those books many a times--even in Salt Lake City in the 90s, these vegetarian tomes were hard to keep on the shelf.

What's even more fun about Thomas is that in addition to being an accomplished cookbook author, she is also an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and acclaimed film producer--her most famous film being, perhaps, El Norte.

The Los Angeles Times wrote a nice article about her when Love Soup came out in 2009. The book went on to win a James Beard Award--the Oscars of the cookbook world. It seems as if Thomas hasn't lost her touch in either the film or the food world.  Lucky for us!

Anyhow, this tortilla, as most tortillas are, is a snap to make, and it travels well.  Not only did this serve as dinner, but I'll admit it served as a few other breakfasts and lunches as well.

The only flaw in this recipe is me.  When I tried to flip the tortilla, it stuck to the pan: 

Lesson learned:  Don't use a cast iron skillet for this dish.

However, cutting it into nice little squares hid my mistake easily.  What did Julia Child say?  "No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize."

See, I meant to do that.  What pretty little squares:

Anyway, happy tortilla eating from this soup cookbook written by a filmmaker. You don't even need a spoon.

One Year Ago: Pork Loin Braised in Milk Bolognese

Tortilla Espanola with Charred Red Peppers
Adapted from  Anna Thomas's Love Soup

Serves 6

1-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
2-1/2 Tbsp olive oil
2 large yellow onions, chopped
1-1/2 tsp salt, plus more to taste
freshly ground black pepper
2 large bell peppers
8 large eggs

1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2.  Scrub the potatoes well, and cut them into a 1/2-inch dice. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large nonstick, oven-safe pan. Add the potatoes and chopped onions, along with a teaspoon of salt and some freshly ground pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the potatoes and onions are soft and browning, at least 25-30 minutes.  Taste for salt.

3.  Put the peppers on an ungreased baking pan and roast the peppers until their skins blister and blackened. Put the charred peppers in a paper bag for a few minutes to let them sweat, then peel, stem and seed them. Cut the peppers into 1/2-inch pieces and add them to the potatoes and onions. Turn the oven to broil.

4.  Beat the eggs, adding about 1/2 tsp salt and pepper, and stir the cooked vegetables into the eggs.

5.  Wipe the pan clean and add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon olive oil. Heat the oil, then pour in the egg and vegetable mixture. Turn the heat very low, cover the pan, and cook until the eggs are completely set, about 10-20 minutes.

6.  Loosen the edges of the tortilla with a thin, spatula, making sure it slides freely in the pan.  Put the pan under the broiler for 5 minutes, checking often, or until the top of the tortilla is browned and set.

7.  Remove the tortilla from the broiler and slide it onto a platter or invert it onto a serving plate. The tortilla can be served hot, warm, at room temperature, or cool.  Cut into wedges or squares.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Pumpkin-Date Loaf with Cream Cheese Swirl

Recently, I became indebted to some wonderful people, and I needed to pass on a small token of my appreciation. What's a better bit of thanks than a loaf of bread?

A loaf of bread with cream cheese.

How about a loaf of pumpkin bread with cream cheese? And so here we are, relishing the glory of bread, glorious bread, with pumpkin and cream cheese.

Greg Patent, our book's author, won second place in the junior division of the Pilsbury Bake-Off, and ever since, he has been baking up a storm. As an adult he became a contributing editor to Cooking Light magazine; in 2002 Patent published this gem of a cookbook where he pored over nearly two centuries worth of American recipes in order to document America's relationship with the baked good.

Admittedly, this cookbook has been one of hit and miss for me. I suspect that because this cookbook is a bit on the more traditional side (and I attest that I am not much of a baker (what, with the measuring and all)) that this lack of target precision in some of the recipes is more the fault of the baker than the book. I am happy to report, however, that this recipe is a bullseye.

Overall, the recipe is simple, and the dates add little surprises of sweetness kept in check by the savoriness of the pumpkin. Patent recommends making the bread the day before you plan to serve it.  And, don't be shy about swirling in the cream cheese before baking. Admittedly my own diffidence kept me from stirring the cream cheese to the bottom of the loaf, and all involved claimed that the bottom half of the bread was a bit dry, especially in comparison to the otherwise yummy and (let's face it) pretty darn autumnal top half of the bread.

Finally, let's take a moment to think about the divinity of bread. For those of you who find your spirituality in fiction, which admittedly I do, let's turn to the high priest of the short story, Raymond Carver. While this story ranks among my favorites of the Carver oeuvre, it is a weeper. Read only if you are in the mood to be hit hard.

Truly, this pumpkin and date bread settled my debts, and the bread in Carver's story is all about connection in the midst of grief.

Might I recommend slicing a bit of bread (this recipe or any other), slathering on the butter, and settling in?

One Year Ago: Pork Loin Braised in Milk Bolognese
Pumpkin-Date Loaf with Cream Cheese Swirl
Adapted from  Baking in America

1 large loaf

For the cream cheese mixture:
4 ounces cream cheese (full fat or light, but not fat free)
2 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 large egg

For the pumpkin loaf:
1 2/3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice*
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup canned pumpkin
1/4 cup canola oil
1 cup pitted whole dates, each date cut into 6 pieces with scissors

*You can buy pumpkin pie spice pre-made or make your own with a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves.

1.  Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a bread loaf pan* or coat with cooking spray; set aside.

To make the cream cheese mixture:
2.  Beat together the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and egg in a small bowl with an electric mixer until very smooth; set aside.

To make the pumpkin loaf:
3.  Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pumpkin pie spice together; set aside.

4.  In a large bowl, whisk the eggs for 1 minute, until frothy. Add the brown sugar and whisk for about 1 minute more, until the mixture is creamy and thick. Whisk in the pumpkin and oil until smooth. Stir in the dates. Add the flour mixture and stir gently with a rubber spatula until thoroughly combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Pour on the cream cheese mixture and swirl it in with a spatula (be sure to swirl in through the whole loaf).

5.  Bake for 60-70 minutes, until the loaf is browned and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Remove from the pan and let cool completely, right side up, on a wire rack. Slice with a serrated knife.

*You can use either a 9x5x3 or a 10x4.25x3 inch pan.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Gratitude

And so it goes as it has gone the past four years: Some Thanksgiving Day Gratitude.

In no particular order, this is what I have to be grateful for this year--

(In delightful news, many of these are repeats from last year.)

1.  Good friends:
While I have no idea who these fine people are in the picture, this is from a trip to the Parkway Theater to watch World Cup soccer with two friends in the Bay Area (who were seated beside us, not in front of us). This past weekend, I was with my mom, and we were talking about friends. I admitted, happily, that my friendships here in my home in California are as wonderful as those I have had in Illinois, Ohio, Utah, and Colorado. I am so grateful to have these friends in my life--and some I have not seen in years, as evidenced by a trip to Utah, where immediately I felt known by and felt like I knew my dear friends. Yes, marriages and children and jobs that pay more than minimum wage and houses have happened. But the friendship remains, true and strong. So it may have been only a year since I had seen my BFF or a shocking four years since I had seen my college best friend, but they--combined with these lovely friends who are scientists, mathematicians, history teachers, engineers, new moms (wow, there are a lot of you!), counselors, real estate agents or transplanted back to their home states in order to become farmers--top the list of what I am grateful for this year.

2.  Yoga:
While I had to take a hiatus in September because I hurt my shoulder (and I might have to take another one because my niece broke my back), I have not only loved teaching but more deeply have loved taking my classes. My brain=sometimes wild. Yoga=quieting that wildness. How I love (need) that.

3. Good music:
A few years ago, the husband got a bee in his bonnet to see more music. That lone bee has turned into a full blown hive, and I have benefited immensely.

4. Beaches and baseball:
If I could think of the two things I love the most, I would say beaches and baseball. I have had plenty of both in my life this year. And I suspect there will be plenty more. Both are about the art of sitting still and then waiting for big things to happen.

5.  Unexpected beauty:
November announced itself with a pretty tough loss; however, in the midst of it all, we kept finding beauty: in deer, in snow, in a frost-covered canyon with a restaurant filled with friends, in a sunset, in a walk around an old campus, in life (such as these lovely deer) in unexpected, snow-dusted fields.  

6.   The little house in Mendocino:
It has become a little nest, a home away from home, a refuge, a solace, a place to regroup. We are lucky to have it and the family within it (and without it) to go to. This afternoon, we will join many of the husband's family for dinner. How lovely.

7.  Having two true homes:
In addition to the little house up the coast, it's lovely to know that I truly do have two homes: one in a flat (currently cold) land with big skies and strong winds; the other with hills, fog, and (sometimes, but not often enough) rain. But even more so, I love knowing I have family--complex, complicated, sad, healthy, unhealthy, happy, loving family--in both.

8.  Last-minute connections:
From a quick trip to Utah to a hurriedly-prepared trip for the niece to California, we have been able to connect and reconnect with others, and such an ability is one I am essentially grateful for.  Recently, I was back in Illinois, and due to the weather and my own inherent flakiness, so many people had to be flexible; however, we saw them all, be it at the Rib Shack or Lincoln's Presidential Museum, a little Irish Pub in Naperville or in front of Barnes and Noble, and I am grateful for their insistence that nothing come between our seeing each other. I am equally grateful for the connections that have not been so last minute--from the Seattle-ite coming to visit and reconnecting with my cousin from Arizona at my great aunt's 90th birthday party, to my dad's annual pilgrimage to Sacramento--these have been sweet, indeed.


9.  My little family:
We are down one cat this year, and our old bird lived a darned good life. The husband and I have been away for a week (wherein we drove for 11 hours and did not once want to throttle the other) and we have returned to two kitties.  The cuddling on the couch, the early morning insistence that one be petted, the chattering and the being underfoot:  I suspect that we were missed.  

10. Good food:
From reinstituted Family Feasts to the National Heirloom Food Exposition, I have gotten to have some really good food this year. As always, I am grateful to have this little place to write it all down; I love having a place to think about food. All of it. Whenever possible. Starting in January, I will be re-upping my posts in honor of the blog's 5th anniversary. I will be cooking page 215 (you know, to honor 2015 without having books that have 2,015 pages). The fun is in cooking things that I wouldn't normally cook (chicken giblets, blood sausage, eclairs, and lamb shawarma are on the docket for the coming year--stay tuned!) and going back to some family favorites (including potato pizza and bolognese sauce).  Thanks for reading along.  I love having you share this love with me.  Have a wonderful thanksgiving.  Feast well.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cream Biscuits with Jam Butter

So, the husband turned a prime number in age. We have been meaning to go out for prime rib* in celebration, but life seems to have other plans for us. As in many, big other plans. Those plans include an impromptu trip back to Salt Lake City (a story for another day) and the preparation for a trip to Illinois to see the family. However, to celebrate the husband's entrance into the prime of his life (or at least a year of it), I made him a birthday breakfast, which featured these lovely biscuits.

* I am not a huge fan of prime rib, but I am willing to at least go to a steakhouse in honor of entering a prime number year and order a hell of a salad.  These are the sacrifices one makes for marriage.

Last month, I happened upon this cookbook while wandering the lovely Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino,  and I snapped it up. While Karen Mordechai and (what seems like delightful) company present a whole host of lovely menus in honor of the spur-of-the-moment gathering of strangers and friends alike, individual recipes can be plucked and selected with reckless abandon and a devil-may-care attitude.  Okay, maybe that was a little more insouciant than necessary. I got carried away. Nonetheless, the cookbook invites both the full menu and the ad hoc picking and choosing.  

This recipe comes from a menu that encourages scrambled eggs, sauteed greens, blood oranges, freshly extracted juice, and savory french-press coffee. We went with merely biscuits with the jam butter, and we were well served.

The biscuits are light and fluffy and ever-so-easy to whip up.  With a little less sugar (as in, say, 1 tablespoon less), these could easily be converted into the base of a delightful biscuits and gravy breakfast or a side for a dinner.  However, as is, they are the perfect foundation for a slathering of butter, jam, honey, or just plain air.  Do knead the biscuits thoroughly, as those that were folded a few extra times were the most heavenly.  

The only thing missing was a mimosa.  In the meantime, let's raise our virtual champagne glasses in a toast:  Here's to celebrations of one's prime, regardless of what life throws.

Cream Biscuits with Jam Butter
Adapted from Sunday Suppers

Makes 8 biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus extra for dusting
2 1/2 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups heavy cream
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 Tbsp of jam (any flavor)

1. Set an oven rack in the upper-middle position, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or grease with a little spray oil.

2.  In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the cream with a wooden spoon, mixing until a dough forms, about 30 seconds. Turn the dough out on a slightly floured surfafe and gather it into a bowl. Knead the dough until smooth.

3.  Pat the dough to form a 3/4-inch-thick round.  Cut into 8 biscuits, using a 2 1/2 inch biscuit cutter, dipping the cutter in flour to keep the dough from sticking to it. Do not twist the cutter--simply cut and lift.

4.  Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet, and bake until golden brown, 12-18 minutes. Let the biscuits cool slightly on the baking sheet.

5.  By hand or with an electric mixer, mix the stick of butter with the jam.  Scrape into a ramekin for serving, or place onto a sheet of wax paper and roll into a log for storing.  This will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator.

6.  Serve each biscuit with the butter-jam mixture.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Quinces Poached in Syrup

Darn.  This picture is a little blurrier than I would like.  Ah, but isn't the quince a gorgeous color?

I love quinces. Pretty much, I love everything about them. Their name (that beautiful q), their color, their smell, and their taste. I love their history--some even say that they were the "golden apple" of Paris-Aphrodite fame or the ever-tempting apple of garden of paradise lore. I love that they can keep for a while, so if you buy a bunch, you can leave them to sit in a bowl on the kitchen table and they make the whole house smell rosy and sweet and autumnal. Yep, I love quinces.

This little dessert is a simple one, and one you (apparently, as I did) can forget about. I guess I need to chalk its forgiving nature up to that catalogue of quince attributes to love.

The quince, which I plan to feature again soon in the form of lamb and quince tagine, can generally be found from October to February. And when you find them, snap them up. Because March is out there, you guys, waiting on the horizon, marking the time of beginning of the season of denial. No body needs that.

Large quince can weigh up to a pound; indeed, the dense little number that I used for this recipe weighed a full pound and we had plenty of quince left over for a subsequent day of slicing up the poached quince and frying it in a little butter. Yes. That is what you can do with any leftover quince from this recipe. And it is divine.

Quinces are very high in pectin (which reduces the longer they ripen); because of the high pectin levels, quince are used to make dulce de membrillo,  that delightful rosy-colored paste found on any Spanish cheese plate (particularly if that cheese plate also sports manchego cheese). This pectin, found in the seeds and the peels (so don't remove them), is precisely what allows the sauce to turn into the consistency of honey and what shoots this simple poached fruit dessert into the stratosphere.

Some notes on how I changed the recipe: I wanted something a little more autumnal (because I am aching for autumn here in Northern California, as I always do this time of year when I see friends posting photographs of blazing-red leaves on trees), so I added a vanilla bean and about 5-6 cloves to the poaching liquid.  When I was boiling the liquid down into the jelly, I absolutely and totally lost track of time. As in, completely.  So I don't even know how long I cooked it, but it was about *this close* to burning. There was much cursing as I called in the husband to help me flip the saucepan into a strainer in the fastest time possible. Turns out that's how long you need to cook the sauce.  Because it formed into this gooey, honey-like jelly that was concentrated and sweet and so, so beautiful.

Finally, Claudia Roden recommends serving these beautiful quinces with kaymak, which is a a rich buffalo's milk from the Middle East (called kaymak in Turkish, eishta in Arabic).  However, she also says that a spoonful of mascarpone will do in a pinch. It did. And it was hardly a pinch.

In sum, what a delightful, almost healthy dessert (okay, that is a lot of sugar, but I was eating a serving of fruit, so that knocks it over into healthy, right?). Next time you see quinces, grab them. Once you're tired of having them sit in a bowl looking beautiful and making your house smell good, it's time to cook them up into this lovely dessert.

Quinces Poached in Syrup
Adapted from  Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food

Serves 4-8


Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 cup sugar
1/2 a vanilla bean
4-6 whole cloves
1 large or 4 small quinces, weighting about 2 pounds total
2/3 cup clotted cream, mascarpone or heavy cream

1.  Boil a pot of water with about 3-4 cups of water with the lemon, the sugar, vanilla, and cloves.

2.  Wash the quinces and scrub to remove the light down the covers their skin.  Cut them in half, through the core, but do not peel.  Don't core them, for the pips are important, as they produce a wonderful red jelly (and you need them along with the skin of the quince for their pectin).

3.  Put the quince in the boiling sugar-water with the cut sides down (the water should cover most of the quince, but don't worry too much about the water level as the fruit cooks for a long time and will steam with the cover on the pot).  Simmer with the lid on the pot until the fruit is tender and the syrup begins to turn a reddish jelly.  The time varies greatly, anywhere between 20-60 minutes, depending on the size of the quince.  If the fruit becomes tender before the jelly begins to form*, carefully remove the quince from the sugar-water, remove the red pips from the core, and return the pips to the sugar-water.

4.  Boil the sugar-water down until it begins to form a syrup.  Quickly strain the syrup through a fine mesh sieve to remove the vanilla, cloves, and pips.

5.  Arrange the quince halves, cut side up, on a serving dish.  Spoon the syrup over the top--it will form into a jelly as it cools.

6.  Serve chilled or at room temperature with dollops of clotted cream, mascarpone, or whipped heavy cream. 

*which is what happened with mine.  I had to remove them, and then I let the liquid cook down.  As mentioned above, I forgot about the cooking liquid, so I am not sure how much time it really takes.