Saturday, June 28, 2008

FatCat cooks breakfast, etc.

I am not a morning person. When on my own, my breakfast consists of two cups of Turkish coffee and three cigarettes. And I do grind my coffee in the evening. It won't lose much aroma overnight, and I just cannot bear the sound of the coffee grinder first thing in the morning.

The FatCat™ is an especially valuable Fat Cat, because he cooks breakfast. That is, in the hour when I am completely helpless, struggling to decide whether it's worth it to attempt to focus my eyes and start going, or to sleep another hour or three, he appears, completely awake, with a cup of coffee and and a huge bowl of fruit salad. And then he's ready to make omelettes. But first we have to go to the market.

And the market is full of temptations. Like a booth where they make crepes, both sweet and savory, thin like fabric, right in front of you. We have to get one with strawberries, banana and caramelized apple. Cannot spoil our appetites, can it?

This week's first appearance on the market are figs! They come from Yolo County, where it's really hot, and are big and perfectly ripe, you are affraid to touch them, so soft they are.

I haven't tried fresh figs until I came to California, and I was never impressed with dried. So fresh figs were an unexpectedly pleasant discovery of a few years ago, and I still love them. I'll eat the first two of three whole, and then we'll have fun with the rest: bake them with goat cheese, wrap them in procuitto and grill, make pies, etc.
Other market finds this time were porcini mushrooms, garlic, scallions, free-range eggs, and heirloom tomatoes, of course.

Now he's ready to cook the omelettes. The traditional FatCat™ cooking style requires that the dish had everything in it, and pretended to be diet food. So take my stainless skillet, treat it as if it were non-stick - very little oil, we are cooking healthy here. Sautee some garlic and scallions, add leftover deli ham, mix in porcinis that I had meanwhile sauteed in a good amount of EVOO mixed with butter (I am not trying to cook healthy), beat 1 whole egg with 3 egg whites (less cholesterol; this is how I utilize the egg whites left after making fresh pasta), pour over the mixture, let set, try to scrape it off the skillet and fold.

The result is a surprisingly tasty mess, served with mixed greens, avocado and heirloom tomato slices, and yes, blueberries, in the sunny garden. Another cup of coffee, and I am fully awake.

The rest of porcinis made a pasta the next day: sautee porcini and white mushrooms in half EVOO - half butter with salt and pepper until golden, add minced garlic and shallot, when softened, add a couple tablespoons creme fraiche, warm through. Serve with penne pasta, garnish with fine herbes and mild grated parmesan.

Salad: heirloom tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, EVOO, balsamic vinegar, sea salt, fresh ground pepper.

Wine: Dry Creek 2006 Taylor's Vineyard Musque.

Dessert: Figs with prosciutto - I'm refusing to turn vegeterian no matter what's on the market.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Quick tomato update

I have a project deadline at work, so there is very little time to blog. I've done some interesting cooking and eaten out, but all this will have to wait till the next week. The food photos are just accumulating on my disk.

So here is one piece of good news for now: my first tomato of the season is turning red. It's an Early Girl, it beat even the Cherries in their race to maturity, though it was a close match.

Heirlooms have a few berries on them, starting to take on the characteristic ugly shape, but it will probably be two-three weeks before we can try them.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tomato Salad and Mushroom Pasta

Both the salad and the pasta sauce are inspired by Suzanne Goin's book Sunday Suppers at Lucques, both are very simple if you have the right ingredients. I did. Heirloom tomatoes and salad greens of several colors come from this week's Farmer's Market. The tomatoes may well be the last ones I had to buy this summer: my own tomatoes are turning red! Or they may be not, you can always use more tomatoes, and I love to buy them.

The salad is garnished with mozzarella fresca and a few oregano leaves and dressed with balsamic vinaigrette.
In the book, the morell mushroom ragout with crème fraîche and fine herbs is served over a toasted brioche, but I found out that it's equally delicious over my homemade fettuccine.

'Shrooms come from the Market, of course. The herbs are growing in a pot on my garden table, and the chervil is already going to seed, so I have to use it fast.

You don't have to buy crème fraîche every time the recipe calls for it. I just have it going in the refrigerator all the time: when there is a little left on the bottom of the crock, warm up some heavy cream and use the leftover crème fraîche for starter. It keeps in the refrigerator very well.

Look at this, I cooked vegetarian again! I did have an idea to tear up some prosciutto and use it in the sauce instead of salt, then realized it's too strong for the rest of the sauce.

OK then, I'll do steaks tonight.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Weekend of Seafood

The ocean is beautiful, and still I am happy that I moved away from the ocean. Because as I was driving yesterday to Bodega Bay, the temperature was dropping almost every mile, and when I finally got there, it was 60F and foggy. An experienced Californian always has a sweater and a jacket in the trunk, even on a hottest summer day (especially on a hot summer day, because this is when the fog may come from the ocean any moment). So I put on both, and proceeded on my quest to find a good place to buy seafood.

There are a couple of places right on Rt. 1 - the Tides, that is a total tourist trap, giftshop and all, and Lucas', pretty touristy too. Behind Lucas' restaurant, however, there is a little fish shop, where an impressive-looking fishmonger is doing magic, filleting rockfish, just off the boat, in one precise movement, with his bare hands and a serious knife. I didn't let him perform much of the magic on mine - just scale it. I don't know why I didn't have him gut it and cut off the sharp fins, somehow I got an idea that if I bring it home whole, it will stay fresher. So the idiot cat had to get out her kevlar glove and gut her own fish. Which means that tripple-wrapped fish guts will have to stay in my garbage till Thursday. May be I should get them out and freeze them, but I just don't feel like diving in the garbage on a nice day like this...

All good, but I still have to find a real seafood place, like El Granada marina, where, when on thye Peninsula, I would buy crab and fish off the boat. So I go into the marina, and between the docks and a trailer park, there is what I'm looking for - a shack with a proud name of Pacific Seafood Co., and crates of Dungeness and oysters next to it. The idiot cat, like a very rich woman, doesn't carry cash, and Pacific Seafood is cash-only. After searching through the purse and the car, I come up with $11, and this is exactly how much is a dozen of medium oysters from Washington state. The water is always cold in Washington, so the oyster season never ends.

My dear friend and drinking buddy KY loves oysters as much as I do, so we had to somehow divide a mere dozen of oysters between the two of us. Luckily, the oysters were relatively big, so there was no fighting.

Oysters first, then the fish had to be squeezed into the well-oiled fish basket, it's gut replaced with all the herbs I could get from the garden - fennel, rosemary, thyme, and parsley - and a quartered lemon, and grilled for some 17 minutes. It still managed to stick to the basket, but you know what, I don't eat the skin anyway.
Cognac for desert.
So this morning I went to the market, looking what's good for a hangover. What I found was sashimi-grade toro (tuna belly) and excellent sea scallops. They also had live lobster, it flies all the way from East Coast of Canada, but I have to pick up the FatCat™ from the airport tonight, and after all these exhausting hours on the plane he may not appreciate it if I show up in SFO with a live lobster that needs to be cooked right away. So I had to pass it, praying that they have it again next week.

Toro I just sliced on the diagonal and ate with some soy sauce and wasabi. God, I made enough wasabi to last me till the next year! I made a whole teaspoon of wasabi!

The scallops I sliced thinly and marinated for 30 minutes in this sauce: juice and rind of one orange (love my microplane zester), 1/4 red onion, minced, 1/4 tsp panca chili paste, a few chives and parsley sprigs, salt and pepper. A hangover can feel good. I ate the scallops first, and then drunk the sauce.

This is how right I was about the FatCat™'s ideas on a happy homecoming after a 14-hour flight: straight from the airport we went to where? - Trader Vic's, of course, and it looks like my man was even happier to see our favorite bartender than anything else in California, including this little food blogger.

Here they are: Trader Vic's fried rolls, and bacon-wrapped shrimps with mango-pineapple sauce. The European traveller had to agree that although all Europe goes to Brussels for dinner and it's worth it, we have some food in California too.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sturgeon Kebabs

Sturgeon Kebabs
The temperature is in the nineties again, I have to grill, even if only for myself.
One of my favorite fishes for grilling is sturgeon, not only because it's my heritage fish (Russians adore sturgeon, it's a topic for a separate post, family history and all), but also it's boneless, the taste is strong enough to stand up to any interesting marinade, and it's so firm that it never ever falls apart on the grill. And I just happened to have a steak that I took out of the freezer last night.

So I cut most of the meat from the steak (the trimmings in a marked zip-lock bag went right back into the freezer for future stocks) and cut it into large cubes.
The marinade was made by rinsing the blender after making chimichurri sauce with a half-glass of Pinot Grigio and juice from a couple of key limes. Kebabs ready to grill After the fish spent 30 minutes in the marinade (and the bamboo skewers in a bottle of water), I took it out, wiped it with paper towels, threaded it on skewers with chunks of sweet red onion from the farmers market, brushed it with EVOO and grilled over medium fire for a few minutes, turning three times. The sauce was made out of reduced and strained marinade.

Yellow rice is colored by tumeric. I'll use saffron next time, I missed the flavor.

Decorated with chopped parsley, nasturtium flower from the garden.

Washed down with laftover cooking-quality Pinot Grigio and a glass of Perrier.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Sunday Farmer's Market

The Sunday Farmer's Market is after me, trying to make me a vegetarian. Me. A vegetarian. Improbable as it sounds, I cannot resist going to the market every Sunday morning, just to check what's new this week, and almost every time I end up cooking a vegetarian meal. OK, I am a Sunday-only vegeterian, you can have this. And I'd still serve pâté for an appetizer.

Well, they do sell meat and fish there too, but there was nothing inspiring at the fish stand this time, and the meat... I know, it's probably one of the most expensive markets in the world (I haven't been in Tokio yet). What we pay here for is 1. The luxury to live and shop in Marin county, and 2. Getting fashionably organic, locally grown, and totally fresh produce directly from the grower. And the meat stand sells it's hugely overpriced selection of organic beef, lamb, pork, and yes, goat, in huge chunks that are vacuum-packed!

I still buy from them once in a while, when I can find a cut that's good for one or two people.

But if they just had a whole animal carcass hanging there and cut from it, I would do it every time. It would match the organic-local-fresh concept so much better! I know, refrigeration would be a problem, but I am supposed to pay $25/lb for even a humble cut, so think of something, give me a show and cut to order. Anyway, the market is not my favorite place to buy meat, so it's a vegetarian Sunday again.

This sunday catch was heirloom tomatoes (can't live without them), an assortment of summer squashes, new Yukon Gold potatoes, Cowgirl Creamery crème fraîche, giant oyster mushrooms, and, this week's star, fresh porcini! Each carefully cut in half to make sure there are no worms, clean, at a handsome price of $30/lb. I was so excited just to smell them that I forgot to ask where they come from. In California, porcini season is in January. Where does it rain in June?

You see, if you cook the new potatoes in their skins, then roughly mash them, skin and all, with some sweet butter, salt, and finely chopped garlic, and while the potatoes are cooking you slice the porcini, giant oyster 'shrooms, and some white mushrooms that you had in your refrigerator, sautee them in a mix of EVOO and butter (salt and pepper added righ away), add minced garlic and shallot 5 minutes before they are cooked, and then add crème fraîche and just warm through, you cannot add meat to this already perfect dish.
Oyster mushrooms have meaty texture, porcini give wonderful taste and aroma (white mushrooms are just for volume), and potatoes and cream match the mushrooms wonderfully and have all the richness you need in a dish. Meat is not called for here, especially if you had a nice thick slice of pâté for starter.

I'll have to figure out what to do with the summer squashes today.
Either a pasta or risotto, or I'll marinate them and use to garnish steaks. I still eat meat Monday through Saturday.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

"Lone Cat's" Steak - Take Two

Ever wondered what happened to that other steak? I grilled it and ate it, just like this.

Filet mignon grilled rare, lemon-shallot butter, grilled red onion and white mushrooms, fire-roasted peppers, heirloom tomato.

Wine: Chateau Ste Michelle Indian Wells Merlot 2003. In a word: sofffft. Both Columbia valley climate and old (for American Merlot) age show. Very fruity in the beginning, then fast but smoothly coming to nothing. Medium (light even for merlot) body.

Lazy Saturday Morning in the Garden

Early Girl tomato
  • Wake up at 7 am to a birdsong, try to sleep till 8, no chance

  • While the water for the coffee is boiling, sweep the patio

  • Clean the sunny pond, cut out water hyacinths overgroving the shadow pond

  • Tie up the tomatoes and peppers

  • Repot the basil

  • Arugula has gone to seed - kill or wait to collect the seeds? I'll wait

  • Edit yesterday's post - I've been drinking

  • Make OJ and coffee

  • Remove the ivy from under the fig tree

  • Drink OJ and coffee

  • Water the orchids

  • Post to blog

  • Clear spiders from the shower, shower

  • Time to relax in the sun? - Too late, it's noon already, the worst time for sunbathing. Off to buy more tomato cages.

Hungarian Purple pepper

Friday, June 6, 2008

Lone Cat's Friday Night Delight: Filet Mignon

So the FatCat™ is in Europe for another week, complaining in the emails, the poor thing, about endless business lunches and dinners he has to endure, and I am, surviving the Friday night on my own. All alone. And the filet mignons on sale in the Safeway come in packs of two. FatCat™, I miss you! Well, it's a good deal, these fillets, I'll take two anyway.

There was a great temptation to eat both fillets, but I compromised by serving a couple of slices of pate with pickles and fire-roasted peppers for an appetizer, and some cheese and apple slices for desert, and saved the second steak for tomorrow.

Grilled fillet mignon: wipe the fillet dry with paper towels, season with salt and pepper, brush with olive oil. Grill over high heat (500F) for 3 minutes each side, turning 90 degrees once to create grill marks, then finish for about 5 minutes on low for medium-rare. Let rest for 5 minutes.

Red stuff is made of fire-roasted red bell peppers, roasted garlic, Spanish (toasted) paprika, salt, pepper, EVOO, red wine vinegar.
Green stuff consists of cilantro, parsley, fresh garlic, EVOO, salt, pepper, lime juice and lime rind.

Both processed in a blender and passed through a fine strainer.

Pink heirloom tomatoes, flat parsley for garnish.

Wine: Rabbit Ridge 2004 Allure de Robles. It claims to be Rhone-style. I would say it's a good example of a Central California Sirah.

"Healthy" Classics: Pâté de Campagne

The man is in Europe and I cook just for my precious self for the time being, so I can relax and forget about fat, cholesterol, and calorie count (I am sure he is not weighting each slice of cheese there either, but you know how you always eat a lot and still lose weight when you travel - I guess he'll be OK).

So we cut into large cubes fat pork belly and pig's liver - sounds like a swearing, Pig's Liver! right? - and marinate them in cheap white bordeaux and cognac, adding a couple of shalots, couple of large garlic cloves, a crushed Jamaican pepper, some dried Provance herbs, or whatever we feel like - I was feeling like Provence herbs.

Cannot add salt and pepper to taste, it's not a very good idea to taste fresh pork from the Chinese store. So just add salt and pepper. I found out that no matter how much salt I add to the pâté or sausage meat, I always have to add more, and even after that they come out not as salty as they are supposed to be.

So we just add a lot of salt and pepper at this stage, and refrigerate the meat till tomorrow.

The next day, we get out the old trusted meat grinder, attach it to the counter, get our meat out of the fridge, and completely mess up our kitchen, clothes, and hair.
Sorry, my hands were so dirty at this step that I just couldn't photograph the process. After the clean-up, we are hopefully left with a bowl of forcemeat. Now we get 2-3 Tbsp of the meat, form it into a patty, if it's too wet, roll it in breadcrumbs, fry it, try it, and adjust the salt! Note that we were probably eating the patty still hot, and the pâté will be served cold, so if the patty tastes good, ADD SOME MORE SALT to the forcemeat. If it comes out undersalted, the best you can do is to serve it with pickles and olives, there is no way to add salt to the finished product.

I was inspired to make pâté this time not only by the absense of the man on a diet, but also by half a pound of caul fat that I recently found in Dittmer's freezer. For such a wonderful product, caul fat is very difficult to find. But now I know that Dittmer's has it, and I'll never wrap my pâté in bacon again! After you defrost your half-pound, it unwraps into a snow-white finest fractal lace that looks more like an example of digital art than like something coming from animal intestines. And it doesn't have added smoke flavor.

As much as I love everything smoked, the bacon flavor does clash with the pâté.

So we unwrap our fatty lace and carefully line the terrine mold (or loaf pan, whatever will be used to cook the pâté) with it, fill it with forcemeat, packing it tight, and cover with the edges of the caul fat, so that the pâté is completely wrapped, cover it with aluminum foul, and in the oven it goes, on a water bath, at 350F, for about 2 hours.

To get the texture right, you have to cool down the pâté under weight. What I use is an oval of cardboard a little smaller than my mold, wrapped in foil and weighted with a large can of San Marzano tomatoes. The next day it's ready to eat. If you don't plan to eat it all at once, cover it with rendered pork, or, better yet, duck fat, to preserve it. I was lucky to have two molds of pâté, and a whole jar of fat left over from a roasted duck, so I'll be eating pâté all week, and will do my best to make sure that by the time the man comes back, there will be no "healthy" food in the house.

Wine: 2004 Dry Creek Mariner, my favorite, I used to have a case...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fresh Pasta

I've been buying fresh pasta in plastic boxes in the supermarket untill one day I looked at the list of ingredients, and I couldn't read most of it. I don't read Latin. So I went on eBay, and instead of buying a couple of books - a chemistry textbook and a Latin dictionary - I bought a pasta machine. Same money, less reading to do. Now there are two or three ingredients in my pasta: eggs, semolina flour, and optional bread flour.

I love dried pasta too, but fresh pasta has a completely different taste (it's made with eggs while dried is made with water) and texture. Mine looks very different too - I don't know how to make complex shapes, especially the ones with a hole in the center, so mine is all flat. Also you have all the fun kneading and shaping your own pasta dough. And if there are guests, it's a show for them.

The dough recipe comes from Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef. You just mix together a little over 3 cups of flour and 8 egg yolks + 2 eggs and knead, knead, knead. Since the dough is very dry, this part is a workout. It's OK to add a teaspoon of too of water to make it a little more manageable, but it has to stay firm and dry, otherwise you'll have a problem of the dough sticking inside the machine later. Then you leave the dough to rest covered in the refrigerator while you relax with a glass of wine and think about the sauce for your pasta, about 30 minutes.

I used this time to clean and salt a pound of fresh anchovies, as described in my favorite Zuni Cafe Cookbook (I should write about this book later, it's not just any cookbook that you get for pretty photographs. I not only enjoy reading it, but actually follow recommendations and even the recipes, and learn something fun and useful every time).

Actually, it's OK to refrigerate the dough for much longer, up to a couple of days (it's just eggs, right?), and it only gets better, if it is covered tightly with plastic and doesn't dry. So if you have anchovies to clean, you can still have a glass of wine afterwards.
OK, the wine is gone, the dough is ready to roll out. For this amount of the dough, do it in 3 or 4 portions. You flatten it first with your hand, then start running it through the machine at the widest setting ( 7 on mine), folding it after each time. This will knead your dough some more, and shape the sheet. When you are satisfied with the shape, you decrease the width setting (6, 5 4, 3, 2, I don't use 1, it's paper-thin and only used for filled pasta) and run the dough through the machine ones or twice on each setting, dusting with semolina if it gets sticky.

The sheet will become too long to handle at some point, cut it in half with scissors. It feels and handles more or less like fabric!

My machine has an attachment that cuts the pasta sheet into either fettuccine or spagetti. My favorite format, pappardelle, is cut by hand. And I don't cut off the rough edges, so that the pasta looks obviously homemade.

I cannot give any recommendations on how much pasta to make per person, it's very personal. Jamie Oliver's huge portions definetely don't work for me. I get time and a half as many servings from his recipes. So I just cook as much as I need, dust the rest with a lot of semolina, fold it carefully, and freeze it in plastic boxes for the future. Right now the future looks good - there are a few containers with different pasta shapes in the freezer.

And yes, the fresh pasta cookes in about 1 minute, frozen - in 2-3 minutes. So by the time you put it in the boiling water, the sauce must be ready, the plates warm, and the diners at table.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Celebrating the Season: Morels

The summer is oficially here, and this week's additions to the Farmers Market are nectarines, black cherries, anchovies, and - yes, yes, YES! - morels. Fresh and deliciously smelling. I honored this first handful with very simple preparation to preserve their forest appeal: washed them carefully (morels are pretty firm and don't absorb water as fast as other 'shrooms, and they really need to be soaked to remove all the sand, pine needles and small insects that they hide in their wrinkled cups and hollow stems), cut large ones in half, and fried in half olive oil/half butter, with salt, pepper, and a little minced shallot added towards the end of the cooking.

Served over fresh pappardelle pasta (on pasta making later).
Should be careful with this aged Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's taste was almost too strong for the 'shrooms.

Next time I may make a creamy sauce with goat cheese and herbs, or add other mushrooms, fresh or dried, and may be some wine and garlic. This first time it just had to be that simple.

Greek Marinated Octopus

One of the most beautiful and intelligent marine animals, marinated Greek-style.

In the Greek Ionian Islands I used to wake up to the loud sound of beating - the locals wake up at the sunrise, when one can catch a large octopus in the surf with one's bare hands, then they beat the catch on the concrete quay to make it release the ink.
The octopus is then boiled for two hours, with vinegar added halfway through cooking, cut up and marinated in olive oil, vinegar and Greek herbs - oregano, rosemary, thyme and parsley.

I never woke up early enough to catch my own octopus, but I had it already cooked in a seaside tavern and loved it. So now I am reproducing the recipe with frozen baby octopus that I catch in a Chinese grocery store.

The babies come already cleaned and free of the ink, as a block, with 10-20 little octopi frozen together. They take about 15 minutes in cold water to defrost and separate. Then I boil them - since they are small, the cooking time is reduced to 40 minutes, - add red vine vinegar for the last 10 minutes, cut the tentacles from the "head" and slice the "head" into rings, and marinate them with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and chopped fresh herbs from the garden for at least an hour. They can keep in the refrigerator for at least a week.

Serve them cold, with country style bread and chilled Italian white wine.