Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Northern California ring of food: french bread and smoked salmon

While living in the City or on the Peninsula one mostly shops ethnic markets, here, in Northern Marin, the food shopping strategy changes: the ethnic markets are few, on the other hand, we are so close to the agricultural communities of Napa and Sonoma, that it's easy to find small, very warm and personal local producers within reasonable driving distance. Every time the weather is nice on a weekend and I feel like going for a ride, I look for local food sources that I would visit over and over again. I call this my "Northern California ring of food" - it could be "Sonoma ring", but my main source is Marin Farmer's Market, and it is, obviously, in Marin.

This Saturday trip was for bread and salmon.

One of my dear salsa dancing partners, Jed (when not busy dancing, surfing, or playing in a band) runs a French-style Wild Flour bakery in Freestone, CA. It's a small village more or less in the middle of nowhere, an hour drive from where I live, but it's on the way to the ocean, and everyone driving on this road stops to get their bread and maybe have a coffee in the charming garden. I just had to check it out, so this Saturday morning I went. This was the longest trip I ever made to have breakfast (the longest trip for dinner was a whole-day sailing in the Grenadines from Union Island, in a storm, to catch our dinner reservation in Firefly on Mustique), and it was well worth it. I had a delicately scented lavender scone with a seriously strong double espresso, and, of course, a baguette to take home.

Everyone hates the supermarket sourdough bread, because it's, right, sour. Some time ago I got so dissapointed by it that I tried to bake my own. In the process I have learned that "sourdough" does not have to be sour at all, the word means that the bread is made with wild yeasts from the air, instead of the commercial type used in other breads. This is how all the bread was made before refrigeration made commercial yeast available. If made carelessly, it can become very sour, but it doesn't have to. The bread I was trying to make came out quite tasty, but I couldn't get the crust right. I still keep the culture, but now I only use it to make pizza.

Now the problem is solved, since what Jed bakes had wonderful sweet and complex flavor and right crust, crispy and fragrant. And I can get it in just two hours, instead of all day's baking, and see my dancing buddy in the process.

From Freestone one can continue on Bodega Highway to Bodega Bay (remember the seafood shop from one of the older posts?), or take the fittingly named Bohemian Hwy, running through Californian farmland dotted with holistic spas and yoga centers, and then through the redwoods to Jenner, CA, where Russian River meets the ocean.

On Hwy 1 outside of Jenner there is a roadside stand, where Greg would sell you his smoked salmon, and, if you are being nice, may be would read you some poetry, tell a story, or recommend a few books to read.

So there will be no cooked dinner tonight: the salmon served with French bread, some cheese, an apple from the garden, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc are my dinner.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fall menu: vegetable stew

This simple stew is based on classic ratatouille, but I learned it from my grandma, who, while being a natural intuitive cook, was born and raised in a Russian village, so the recipe that she got from one of her lady friends she called "soup ritatoole". This was not correct, but did sound like a song for us, kids, to dance to: soup, soup, ri-ta-toole, tap-tap-tap, clap-clap-clap...
It isn't really a soup, it's a very moist stew , and I like reduce some of the cooking liquid and spoon it over the meat that I serve with it.

This time I used cherry tomatoes from my garden, they grow faster than I eat them, and some of them get overripe and crack - these I use for cooking. A good practice would be to use San Marzanos, but these grow so slowly, I just get one or two a week.
I don't peel the tomatoes, but I fire-roast and peel the peppers. I know, most people would do exactly the opposite - let them. The eggplants here are japanese cherry variety, I bought them for their good looks, and will never do it again. Inside their cuteness, they consist mostly of seeds. Fat Italian eggplants rule. This stew benefits from lots of garlic, so if your garlic tolerance is even higher than mine (unlikely!), add some more.

The beauty of this dish is that you eat as much as you want hot (here it's served with pork loin chop, seasoned with salt and pepper and sauteed in a little olive oil), put the leftovers in a jar, top with a splash of red wine vinegar, and refrigerate for up to a week, serving cold as an appetizer or to garnish meat.

Fall vegetable stew
makes 2-3 servings

1 small or 1/2 large red onion, sliced in 1/2 inch half-rings
4-5 garlic cloves, sliced
2 Tbsp olive oil
large handfull of cherry tomatoes, halved
4 small eggplants, sliced
2 bell peppers, fire-roasted, skinned, seeded and sliced
a few olives
a few sprigs of fresh herbs: oregano, parsley, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf (easy on the last two)
1/2 glass white wine
salt, pepper, sugar (optional) to taste
2 tsp red wine vinegar

Heat the oil in a deep sautee pan, add garlic and onion, cook stirring over medium heat for several minutes, until soft and translucent. Add eggplant, cook until almost cooked. Add tomatoes, peppers, olives, herbs and wine. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring once in a while. Adjust salt, pepper and optional sugar.

If not serving immediately, add vinegar and refrigerate.

Home curing olives, wish me good luck.

For the last few days the employees and visitors of our business park were amused by the sight of a woman in a nice office attire, high heels and all, sometimes with a laptop bag tossed to the side, picking olives from the trees decorating our driveway. Well, may be they took it as a sign of the economy going down, and were not amused at all. I just couldn't let these beautiful olives go to waste, and I had always wanted to try to cure my own.
Right, there must be a harder way to do it.
Anyway, I have picked 6 pounds.

Now they are washed, covered with brine (1 cup of kosher salt, 8 cups of water) and cheesecloth to keep them submerged. I'm planning the release around the end of November, but since I didn't crack them (I like whole olives better) it may take even longer.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What to do with a pumpkin - Part II

Here is what happened with the other half of that Kabocha squash from my previous post. I got the idea of vegetable flan from James Peterson's Essentials of Cooking. The flan can be made of almost any vegetable puree, of a mixture of vegetables, or even of the leftover vegetable soup. Spices can be added as desired. I actually like the taste of this little squash so much that I only added garlic.

To make the puree of squash, you have to bake it first: cut it in half, remove the seeds and fibers with a spoon, dress with some salt, pepper, and olive oil, wrap in aluminum foil and bake at 400F until soft, about 30-40 minutes.

Flan of Kabocha squash
serves 2

1/2 Kabocha squash, baked
2 eggs
3 Tbsp of heavy cream
2 garlic cloves, minced
salt, pepper
1/2 tsp butter

Preheat the oven to 375F. Pour 2 inches or hot water into a roast pan, set in the oven for the water bath.

Scrape the flesh out of the squash, add eggs, garlic and heavy cream, puree in blender. Season to taste.

Butter two ramekins (or heat-resistant bowls or cups), pour in the mixture. Place the ramekins on the water bath in the oven, make sure that the water reaches a little over half-way up the sides of the ramekins. Cook until the flan is set, 30-40 minutes. Serve in ramekins, or invert on plates and tap gently to release.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Oysters and White Wine

The good thing is that I live within a short drive from several oyster farms, supplying oysters to San Francisco restaurants and stores, and my birth month has an "r" in it. Not that it matters much in Northern California - the Pacific water here is so cold all year around that the oysters can be grown anytime - but the "r" months are the traditional oyster season, and it feels nice to honor the tradition. The bad thing is, it's also the flu season, and I managed to get the bug just a couple of days before my birthday party at the oyster farm. Well, at least I was getting better by the time of the party, and already could feel the smell and the taste again, just had to be careful not to get too cold. On a warm sunny day like this, and wearing a heavy scarf and warm socks.

My friends and I like to go to Tomales Bay Oyster Company because it is somewhat protected from the ocean breeze, so it's usually a bit warmer here than on other farms, and it has picnic tables and barbeques.

They grow Pacific oysters on floating trays right in front of the beachside picnic area, and sell them by the dozen at a counter on the dock. The oysters range in size from extra-small (delicate flavor, best for eating fresh) to jumbo (for the grill).

On a rare warm and sunny Saturday the place gets very busy, so it's hard to find a table, and there's a line to the sales counter. Whole extended families come, with the kids, dogs, coolers of beer and wine, marinated meat for the barbeque, and all their photo and video equipment.

We were lucky to get a weathered wooden table next to the office, where a huge oyster-colored cat was sunbathing on the front porch, lazily waiting for us to open and offer him an oyster.

Once you have a table, go buy a bag or two of the freshest oysters you can get anywhere. My friends are experts at opening them by now, and all have their own favorite oyster knives and Kevlar or silicon gloves. Bay Area geeks are serious about their gadgets, be it electronics or cooking utencils. In truth, all you need to open an oyster is a screwdriver and some caution, but it's fun to show off all the gear.

Now it's just a squeeze of lemon, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Crisp New Zealand wine works best of all, although Australia or Coastal Sonoma are all good.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Fall menu: what to do with a pumpkin

Now it's the California fall market at it's best:
the late summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are still there, and at the same time we get all the fruits - many types of melons, grapes, figs, peaches, nectarines, pears and apples, - wild mushrooms, and, unfortunately, the tempting, but mostly useless decorative stuff like Indian corn and winter squashes. You buy them because they look good, and then you never get to cook them, and toss them before Christmas.

Well, the basket of fruits that I got will go to my birthday picnic to be eaten with cheese and wine, and I withstood the temptation to buy the colorful corn and ornamental peppers, but I just couldn't leave without a squash.

So I handled various exotic looking gourds, put them together, imagined how pretty they would look in my living room, in a basket, next to pale orange roses, on a bed of fallen leaves, and then I thought how I will have to through them away, dry and dusty, two month from now. Waste of food. I just don't eat squash.

Fortunately, a compromise was easy to find. Japanese Kabocha squash, although it doesn't look like much, is a kind of winter squash that really tastes good, and is of manageable size. So I put down the tastless ornamental stuff , and got one of these.

It's about 3 pounds, and, if you manage to cut it - use a very sharp heavy chef's knife and a lot of caution - has bright orange flesh with a wonderful nutty flavor, and a handfull of fat, delicious-looking seeds that I never managed to roast right. This time I was trying to turn them half way through roasting, burned my hand, and spilled the seeds in the 400F oven. The few that I saved were not yet roasted, so were very hard to crack, but tasted great. The rest burned, filling the place with awful black smoke.
So, cut the squash in halves, scrape out the seeds with a spoon, and discard.
Remove the skin, cut the flesh into 1 inch slices, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast at 400F until tender, about 30 minutes, turning once. Cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.
Then we can use the roasted squash in a variety of ways. Here, I offer a salad and a soup. For the soup I used one of my "boullion cubes" - home-made chicken stock that I freese in small plastic containers, - and the fire-roasted peppers that I make every time I buy pepper, and then keep in olive oil with some balsamic vinegar for up to a week. The salad in the photo is served with slices of a roasted duck.

Warm salad of Kabocha squash with walnuts
for 1 serving:
1/4 roasted Kabocha squash, cut into bite-size pieces
a handful of mixed salad greens
1 Tbsp walnut pieces
1 Tbsp dried sour cherries
1 Tbsp crumbled blue cheese - optional

2 Tbsp Olive oil
1 tsp Balsamic vinegar
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt, sugar, pepper

Arrange the squash pieces over the greens, scatter the cherries, walnuts, and the cheese (if using) on top. Wisk the dressing ingredients together. Dress and serve.

Fall Colors Soup
for 1 serving:
1 Tbsp grape seed oil (or vegetable oil)
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/4 lb roasted Kabocha squash
1 large red bell pepper
1 cup chicken stock
2 Tbsp heavy cream
1 Tbsp minced herbs (parsley, chives, basil) to garnish

Place the pepper on a hot grill, under a broiler, or on top of a gas burner, and roast, turning, until the skin turns black and blisters. Put in a covered dish or a paper bag and let cool. When cool enough to handle, remove the pepper, peel off the skin and remove the stem and seeds.

In a deep large pan, heat the oil. Add onion and garlic, cook until soft but not colored. Add the squash, the pepper, and the stock. Bring to a slow boil, cook for about 10 minutes. Take off the fire, let cool slightly. Puree in a blender (make sure to hold down the lid. If the soup is hot it would try to blast the lid off and spill).

Pour into a soup pot, heat up over low heat (don't boil), stir in the cream, serve, garnished with the herbs.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Salmon with mushroom sauce

Here starts the fall menu. I know that asparagus does not represent the fall, but I love the combination of it's color with the salmon so much that I got imported asparagus and included it anyway.

The sauce here is composed of white, chanterelle, giant oyster, and shitake mushrooms. Any mushroom combination would work, but the chanterelles really make it delicious.

The salad on the side is mixed greens with heirloom tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

Sauteed salmon with mixed mushroom sauce

Serves 2

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 Tbsp butter

1-1/2 cups sliced mixed mushrooms

1 shallot, minced

3 sprigs of thyme, leaves only, stems removed

1/2 glass of white wine

3 tbsp crème fraîche

salt, pepper

1 Tbsp peanut or vegetable oil

2 wild salmon fillets, skin removed

salt, pepper

Heat the olive oil in a sautee pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, the butter, thyme leaves, and some salt and pepper. Sautee until all liquid evaporates and the mushrooms turn golden. Add shallot, reduce heat to medium-low, cook for a few of minutes without coloring the shallot. Add wine, reduce to about 1/3, add crème fraîche, reduce some more, keep warm.

Season the fillets with salt and pepper, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat, cook the fillets for 5-7 minutes per side. Serve the sauce over the fillets, with or without steamed asparagus, or, for a more appropriately seasonal dish, with boiled and lightly mushed potatoes.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Learning to Stir Fry

I got a small stir fry pan! I wouldn't call it a wok - it's Calphalon stainless steell, not the traditional carbon steel that turns black with use - but it's small enough to fit into my kitchen, it has a metal handle (that's one reason why I didn't get an authentic wok, everything in the Chinese store has plastic handles that I don't like), it's easy to clean, and, it turns out, one can use it to stir fry!

The common sence would tell me to get a cookbook and to try to follow a few recipes, to get the idea, and then start improvising. But no, I'm not like this, only the lusers (short for 'lame users' in old hackers slang) read the manual, the real gurus just do the thing. So my first stir fry experiment is an improvisation. It turned out eadible, and I will probably even repeat it, with some variations - it has to be a little different every time, no fun otherwise.

I used a top sirloin steak from Safeway that was flavorful, but, like most meat cuts in this store, cut in such a way that I had to trim off a lot (the trimmings go into the freezer in a marked plastic bag for future stocks), so as a results I probably had a little over half a pound of meat.

Stir fried steak with bell peppers
serves 2

2 Tbsp peanut oil
2-3 large garlic cloves, grated
1 in of gigger root, grated
1 star anise, litely bruised
1 kaffir lime leaf, cut into thin strips
leaves from 2-3 sprigs of oregano and thyme, stems removed

1 top sirloin steak, trimmed and cut against the grain into thin 2-inch long strips
salt, pepper

1 yellow onion, peeled, cut in half, and thinly sliced
1 each small red, orange, and yellow bell peppers, cored and thinly sliced
handful of white mushrooms, quartered
4-5 asparagus stems, hard part removed, cut into bite-size pieces

1 tsp each soy sauce, fish sauce, rice vinegar, toasted seasame oil
a few basil leaves, to garnish
1 cup steamed white rice, to serve

Heat the stir fry pan over high heat. Turn on the kitchen fan. Add the oil, immediately add the aromatics, swirl and cook for about 30 seconds.

Add the steak, cook, stirring to brown on all sides. Remove the steak to a plate.

Add more oil if needed, add the vegetables, cook stirring untill soft and browned in places, a couple of minutes.
Add back the meat and the meat juice, stir to warm up. Adjust salt end pepper. Remove the star anise.

Mix the sauces, vinegar, and seasame oil, add to the pan, stir to mix. Garnish with basil leaves.
Serve over rice.

Why white wine? - No reason, I just was feeling like it this time. I would actually serve a Zinfandel with this dish.