Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cooking Party... at Work!

I love my job. For several reasons, here is one: what do you think my department did when we got budget for a one-day teambuilding event? Paintball, white-water rafting, going to see a game, some other silly thing that grown-ups do on a company expence? A cooking class and a winery tour! Yesterday, almost entire IT department (cannot leave the company without IT support for a whole day, so a few people had to stay behind. We'll make it up for them) got on a bus to go to Ramekins cooking school in Sonoma, where we would put on aprons and cook ourselves a fancy lunch. One reason why I like to work in the IT department: when all of your dear colleagues rush to the bathroom at the same time to wash their hands before the cooking class, the line is in the mens room, not in ladies.

Now picture this: 18 computer geeks, each of them able to tell a straight from a cross-over network cable without looking twice, but most having very foggy idea of how to hold a chef's knife, in a large and well equipped professional kitchen, trying to cook a four-course meal. Well, we didn't do that bad. There are a few hard-core foodies among us, and the rest were full of enthusiasm at an opportunity to actually touch real food, so with the help of four instructor chefs we managed just fine.

What we did:

Crab Cakes with Lemon Aioli

Caramelized Onion and Potato Tart

Chopped Salad with Green Goddess Dressing

Herbed Salt-Crusted New York Strip with Brandy-Peppercorn Sauce

Balsamic Roasted Potatoes with Cipollini Onions

Green Beans with Rosemary Gremolata

Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee

The best entertainment was provided by two Helpdesk guys cooking the steaks. Very large strip steaks are coated by a white mass made of lots of beaten egg whites (the yolks go into the Creme Brulee), salt, chopped parsley, rosemary and thyme, baked at 475F for about 15 minutes, then, after 10 minute rest, the salty crust is broken and discarded, the steaks removed, sliced, and served with the flavored butter. I wouldn't repeat this riecipe at home, it's more for show than for flavor, and I beleive that similar but better results can be achieved by brining the steak with the herbs for one or two days, then wiping it dry, brushing on some oil and grilling it. But when the guys started smashing the egg/salt mixture over the steaks with both spatulas and bare hands, competing who does more and better, it looked somewhat like wrestling in the snow. And we were not there to get the most efficient recipes, we were there to have fun, right?

My job was separating the eggs (haven't seen eggs that small and fresh in years!) and making the flavored butter for the steak, so here is the butter recipe as I remember it:

Brandy-peppercorn butter

1/2 lb salted butter, at room temperature
2 shallots, finely minced
1 tsp thyme leaves, finely minced
1 Tbsp parsley, finely minced
juice of 1 lemon
1-1/2 tsp black peppercorns, crushed or coarsly ground
1/2 cup brandy

1 sheet of parchment paper, approximately 15x15 in

In the mixing bowl of a food processor, combine butter, shallots,thyme, parsley, lemon juice and pepper.

Process at slow speed until well mixed together.

In a heavy sautee pan, reduce the brandy to 3 Tbsp.

Add brandy to the butter mixture and process again.

With a flexible spatula, scrape the butter mixture onto the parchment paper and form into a thick log. Twist the ends. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or more to firm. Remove from paper and slice into thin disks. Serve over hot steaks.

This butter (and other flavored butters) can be easily frozen for several month. When ready to serve, bring to almost room temperature to slice, then add on top of grilled fish, steak, or vegetables. As the butter melts, it naturally makes a flavorful sauce.

Notes from this class (more for myself than for others):

- The instructor suggested that to separate a large number of eggs (I had 3 dozen) it's easiest to break them all carefully into a large bowl, then pick up the yolks with a slotted spoon. However, with eggs that fresh the white literally hugs the yolk and you cannot pick it up with the spoon, so I still had to do them one by one using half-shells and fingers.

- It's easier to crush peppercorns in a mortar than to gring in an electric grinder - more control.

- Watch this brandy! I almost evaporated it all, the pan was much heavier than the ones I'm used to, so after I took the reduced brandy off the fire it continued cooking. Had to rush it to the processor before it was gone.

- A hand towel is a must, in a professional kitchen even more than at home, and should be kept in the apron at all times.

- I want a stand mixer and a flexible spatula!

- You can trust men with cooking a steak, even if they are computer geeks.

Iron Horse 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay
Jordan Alexander Valley 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Wine and Cheese by the Bay

In our never ending quest for new and interesting foods (and driven by my curiosity to explore different farmers markets), we went all the way to the tiny town of Point Reyes Station, that has a market on Saturday morning. The market turned out to be very small, containing more useless stuff than food, and the sleepy little town, populated completely by Marin Inhabitants Type II (hippie-environment-meditation-spiritual-vegetarian-marijuana) failed to impress. That is, until we saw the sign. The sign was attached to a large barn next to the town center, and it read "Cowgirl Creamery". The famous creamery that in the nineties started the fashion for artisan cheeses in the US, and that still supplies the best cheese courses to the fanciest restaurants in San Francisco and beyond, was right here, in the barn in front of us. In we went.

The interior of the barn is divided into a glass enclosure where they make the cheese, and a cheese shop. In the shop, they sell their own cheeses as well as cheeses from all over the States and Europe.

We got a mild-tasting Carmody from Sonoma for the FatCat™ and a strong Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk for myself. They also have a grilled sandwich counter in the shop, but we didn't have time for a sandwich. We were on our way to the cute village of Inverness, on Tamales Bay, for a picnic of wine and cheeses.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Friday Night Mixed Grill

I didn't plan it as a mixed grill, but once in the store I couldn't decide between halibut and sturgeon steaks, so I got them both. Fortunately, they were approximately the same thickness and cooked in the same time (about 12 minutes on medium grill).


Spinach Rolls
1 large bunch of spinach, washed and stems removed
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp each black and white toasted sesame seeds

Steam spinach until wilted. Let cool in a colander, squeeze out water, season with the soy sauce. Place the spinach on a sushi mat and roll into a 1-1/2 inch thick log. With a very sharp knife, slice the log into 1-1/2 in pieces. Garnish with sesame seeds.

Mushroom Rolls
1 package of enoki mushrooms
3 thin slices of bacon

Cut the mushroom roots off, divide the bunch into 3 equal parts. Wrap each part in a bacon slice. Grill over a medium grill, turning frequently, until the bacon is crisp. With a sharp knife, cut each roll in 2 or 3 portions.

Main: Grilled stugreon and halibut with papaya salsa:

Papaya Salsa
1 small sweet papaya, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2 in cubes
1 japanese cucumber, skin on, cut into quarters, then thinly sliced
1 small white onion, peeled, sliced, rinsed with cold water to take off the bitterness
a small bunch of cilantro, chopped
1 green chili (I used the mildest kind because I cannot eat hot peppers), chopped
juice of 1 lime
sea salt, fresh ground pepper to tase

Mix all ingredients well.

Season the fish steaks with salt and pepper, brush with light olive oil, grill over medium grill about 12 minutes or until done, turning carefully once half way through cooking. Serve with the salsa.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sunday Market Research

I was spending last weekend on the Peninsula, and of course I had to use the chance to compare Mountain View Sunday farmers market to the Marin Sunday farmers market that I've been writing about here all this time.
The first thing you notice is the crowd. They are Indian and Chinese, Russian and German, men, women and kids, but you can clearly see that most of them are Java programmers. With the exception of those who are C# programmers, programmers' wives and kids (and they probably do some Java programming too). And they wear Java programmers uniforms: shorts, T-shirts and sandals. No fashion show here, while in my market, Marin inhabitants Type I (yuppy-type) compete in perfection of their dressed-down designers yoga outfits, and Marin Type II (hippie-type) go overboard with artistic creativity. No show means no problems with the parking. People just come, get their groceries, and move on. There are more people in Mountain View market than in Marin, but this crowd is easier to navigate - fewer people with carts and strollers.

OK, enough antropologic observations, it's a food blog and I am expected to write about groceries. Both markets happen at the same time, so the vendors are different. I imagine that some really big farms may be able to send their employees to sell in both markets, but then what would these large producers be doing in a farmers market at all?

The quality and selection of fruits and vegetables is about the same in both markets, however the prices are some 20% higher in Marin (no surprise here).

We found some very colorful peppers, perfect baby artichokes, fresh lettuce, and a selection of mushrooms (we selected large Portabello 'shrooms for the grill). And at the tomato stand, FatCat™ found a huge ugly heirloom tomato (the uglier ones are the tastiest), way over two pounds, that he absolutely had to take home. He is still eating it.

I missed the seafood vendor that we have in Marin - here is just a small oyster stand - the butcher and the artisan cheeses. What's nice about shopping on the Peninsula is that whatever you missed on the market you can get in the numerous ethnic stores. There is the Milk Pail for fruits, vegetables, and cheeses, several Chinese and a Japanese supermarket for fresh fish, a Persian market for lamb and exotic spices, or go to a Mexican market and get all the vegetables you need, some interesting cut of very fresh meat and a pound of queso fresco - cheap! The one we went into just became another fine example of California fusion: the Fiesta Super market now has a large sign "РУССКИЕ ПРОДУКТЫ" (Russian groceries) over the entrance
and sells both Mexican and Russian stuff.

I'm not posting a recipe here because we just marinated the tri-tip steak with cumin, oregano and lime juice, brushed the vegetables with salt, pepper and olive oil, grilled everything by the pool and ate with fresh made pesto.

OK, here is the pesto:
1 bunch of green basil, stems removed and leaves roughly chopped
2/3 cup olive oil - I use half of light olive oil for blending, then add half of EVOO. (For some reason the EVOO doesn't like to be put in a blender and turns bitter if blended.)
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts (toasted or not - matter of taste)
salt, pepper
1/2 cup grated parmesan - optional

Put basil, light olive oil, garlic and pine nuts in a blender, blend until almost smooth but leave some chunks for texture. Add EVOO, salt, pepper. Mix in parmesan.
If you are going to store the pesto for a few days, it's better to leave the cheese out and add it just before serving - it stays fresher without the cheese. Also for storage cover the surface of the pesto with olive oil to preserve the color.

Serve as a sauce for pasta, over grilled meat, fish, chicken or vegetables, or add to mediterranian-style soups. Or add even more extra-virgin olive oil and use for dipping bread.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Borsch - the Russian Beetroot Soup

I have found out that while living in California, I don't feel like cooking Russian dishes most of the time. The heavy, hearty winter dishes that used to warm us up on a snowy day are just to much for the mild local winter, and in the summer there are just too many tempting fruits and vegetables that ask for some other cooking style.

Although his week's farmers market didn't have anything new and exciting, it provided all the vegetables needed for this colorful Russian soup. The picture shows much more vegetables that I used for the soup. I just baked all the beets and used one for the soup and the rest for a salad. The purple "heirloom" carrots were a dissapointment: after you peel them, they are the same regular carrot color inside!
Traditionally borsch is made with beef stock, better yet a stock made of beef and ham bones. I just discovered that I'm out of the beef/ham stock after I started cooking, so this time it's made with chicken stock. I garnished it with fried bacon bits to make up for that ham flavor. If making fresh beef stock, slice the boiled meat off the soup bones and add to the soup.
Vegetarian versions are not very common, but are not completely out of the question. Use vegetable broth, or infuse dried porcini mushrooms in hot water for 30 minutes, then strain the liquid through a paper towel and use both the liquid and the 'shrooms in the soup.

Like many other Eastern-European soups, it's much thicker than most Western soups, so it can be served as a one-dish dinner.
My grandma used to slice all the vegetables with a sharp knife, and the results were always even and perfect size. My mom cuts a corner and uses a coarse grater - fast, but the texture is not the same. I use a combination of a Japanese Benriner slicer and a Kevlar glove (a must for the idiot cat who would otherwise cut herself with anything even less sharp than Benriner).

(3-4 servings)
2 1/2 cups beef of chicken stock
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large or 2 small beets, plus (optional) greens from 2-3 beets
1/2 small head of white cabbage, thinly sliced
1 mediom yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, cleaned and sliced into thin sticks
1 sweet green pepper, seeded, cored, and thinly sliced
2 medium ripe red tomatoes, peeled and cubed (it's OK to seed them, butI leave the seeds in)
2-3 garlic cloves
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
salt, pepper to taste

for serving:

3 tbsp crème fraîche or sour cream
minced dill and/or parsley
3 slices of bacon, fried, dried on paper towels, and crumbled (optional)

Cut the root end and the leaves off the beetroot, leaving 1/2 inch on, to keep the juice in.
Heat the oven to 400F, place the beet in a baking dish with a little water, cover with aluminum foil and bake until fork-tender, 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size. Let cool, peel and set aside.

Bring the stock to a simmer in a 3-qt. soup pot.

Heat the oil in a skillet. Sautee the onions and carrots until just beginning to turn golden. Add to the stock, bring back to a slow simmer. Add the cabbage, cook for about 10 minutes, then add the sweet pepper and sliced beet greens. Bring back to simmer, add the tomatoes, cook until the tomatoes are very soft. Slice the baked beet root, toss with the vinegar to preserve the color, add to the soup. Mince the garlic with some salt, then pound to a paste in a mortar. Take the soup off the heat, add the garlic paste, cover and let stand for a few minutes.

Served garnished with sour cream, minced herbs, and (optional) bacon crumbs.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Grilled lamb chops

I just don't get tired of the grill.

New Zealand lamb chops: rub with mustard and salt, marinate for a few hours, grill on the hot grill about 3 minutes each side, or to desired doneness. Served with leftover roasted tomato sauce from the previous post.

Summer squash and red onions: slice about 1/2 in thick, brush on olive oil mixed with salt and pepper, grill on the side of the grill untill soft.

Salad of heirloom tomatoes and avocados, lime and olive oil dressing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Grilled Spot Prawns over Pasta

I love almost everything about living in Marin County, with one notable exception: there is no Oriental grocery here. Not a single Chinese market in the entire North Bay. So, being surrounded by the Bay and the Ocean, whenever I want fresh seafood, the closest place to go is 99 Ranch in El Cerrito, cross the bridge.

It's hot here again, over 100F, good time for grilled seafood (if you can get it home), so I put the cooler with an ice pack in the trunk and crossed the bridge. And there I became a lucky owner of half-dozen live spot prawns, the tastiest of all shrimps ever, and, as a bonus, local and ecologically sound.

At least they were live and very active when I bought them. By the time I got them home, they were barely moving, but still the freshest and finest shrimps. I just rinsed them with running cold water and rushed them to the grill. About 2 minutes on each side, salt-pepper later.

The prawns taste like little lobsters, and are pride and joy of the West Cost. But oh, they are expensive!

Served over my homemade pappardelle, with roasted tomato sauce: put some olive oil, sliced red onion, sliced garlic, red tomatoes cut in half, cut side up, in a baking dish. Season with sea salt, fresh pepper, a few sprigs of oregano, and more olive oil. Roast at 350F for about an hour. Puree in a blender.

If the heads and shells are not eaten (they are edible if fried crisp, thet's what they do in sushi bars), they should be (and were) saved for stock. In fact, I already made the stock and froze it for the future.

Wine: 2007 Veramonte Sauv. Blanc, very well chilled.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Meyer lemon tarts

Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques is my new inspiration cookbook. In the book, Suzanne bakes a meyer lemon tart for her chocolate-loving sister, so she layers it with dark chocolate. I am not a big fan of chocolate, so I left it out. For the crust, I took pâte brisée from the little book Les Tartes Salées et Sucrées (cannot find it online now) that I brought from France some 15 years ago - 250 g flour, 125 g butter, 1 egg yolk, a pinch of salt (has to be simple, I am a complete idiot when it gets to baking) - and added 2 tsp of sugar. Mixed, chilled, rolled out into 6 thin rounds and fit them into 6 little tart forms with removable bottoms. Put a round of parchment paper in each, wrapped in plastic, left in the freezer till the next day.

When ready to bake, I took them out of the freezer, unwrapped, poured two handfulls of dried beans into each (on top of the paper!), and baked at 375F for about 10 minutes. Then I tried to take them out, remove beans and paper, and finish baking.
At this point a baking accident happened that left me with 5 tart shells and a horrible burning mess of beans and buttery pie dough in the oven. The remaining five continued baking for another 10 minutes, until golden, with the fan on high and all windows open.

I still have a few meyer lemons hanging on the tree from the last year. It's midsummer, better eat them soon, right? So I picked a couple that seemed plump, zested them (did I mention my new microplane zester? It's my pet) and squeezed the juice. They contained surprisingly many seeds and little juice, but two made just about 2/3 of a cup. Combined the lemon juice, 1/2 cup sugar, 3 eggs and 2 egg yolks in a wide saucepan and whisked together over medium-low flame until it thickened to a consistency of thin sour cream. Whisked in about 8 tsp of cold butter, let cool a little and filled the tart shells. Decorated the tops with a pinch of lemon zest and a mint leave. They are chilling in the refrigerator right now, waiting for the after dinner drinks or the morning coffee.

Farmer's Market is becoming dangerous

I think I got a little carried away with vegetable shopping this time. They moved the Thursday market to the shopping center right next to home, and since my boss kicked me out of the office for the short day at lunchtime, I made it to the market 15 minutes before it closed. This is when everything goes on sale. I know that we will be grilling at a friend's party tomorrow, but people would expect meat, not vegetables. Who is going to eat: a pile of tomatoes, different shapes and colors, a few Italian eggplants, soft summer squashes - I don't even like them that much, but they look great, all different, and they do grill well, - a three-pack of strawberries, large bunch of parsley, a melon (three for $5, the vendor said, cheaper than diesel), red and yellow onions, and a basket of figs? Well, I know about the figs, at least.