Monday, August 31, 2009

The colors of summer

Although San Franciscans are largely deprived of good summer weather (as I write this, our heat is on and I'm wearing wool socks), we do enjoy good summer produce. Scratch that: we enjoy great summer produce. The vibrant shades of red, yellow, and green that have been appearing in our produce box recently have put me in a salad kind of mood.

The fact that these salads often accompany wintery dishes doesn't bother me. Last week I made a cheery tomato and cucumber salad to go alongside a roasted pork loin and creamy grits. The salad provided a dash of brightness to an otherwise muted palette.

To everyone's delight, over the weekend, we had one day of startling heat, up into the 90s. We'd invited our friend Alby over for dinner and I was a bit undecided on what to make. Most of what I cook is rather cozy, since the weather year-round allows for it. On the few hot days we enjoy each year, I never know what to make; apparently my cooking style is very reliant on the oven, as well as on boiling pots of pasta water. Our infrequent heat waves shed light on why people in other parts of the country (and state) grill during the summertime.

Unfortunately, we have no grill and a backyard that is tough to get to anyway--you must go down some rickety stairs and through the garage, shimmying by the cars parked tandem-style. It's not conducive to a laid-back BBQ. So I decided to make one of my go-to company dishes, chicken roasted with cherry tomatoes, honey, and rosemary.

This dish requires the oven for about half an hour. I figured I should do everyone a favor and minimize the heat for everything else I was going to make.

Using a vegetable peeler, I made ribbons out of zucchini and yellow squash, tossed them with a bit of salt, then set them in a colander to drain for about 5 minutes. Then I rinsed and dried them gently in a kitchen towel.

I composed a dressing of rice vinegar, canola oil, lemon juice, dijon, sugar, salt and pepper. Then I tossed the squash with the dressing, throwing in some lemon cucumbers and chives.

The result was a very pretty and refreshing salad, if I do say so myself, and a hit at the dinner table. And to my surprise the leftovers survived a night in the fridge and were a good accompaniment to our sandwiches the next day for lunch (fried egg for the husband, roast pork for me). I suggest you try a little zucchini ribbon salad for yourself, while the vegetable is in season and some people's gardens overflow with it. It was quite delicious.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Mark Bittman's coffee cake, with blueberries and cardamom

Somehow during a run to Trader Joe's last weekend, we ended up with an extra basket of blueberries. I think it might have belonged to the guy in front of us. We already had picked out a pretty hefty 32-oz basket of berries and were not looking to filch anyone else's. But in the barely controlled chaos of the checkout line, a stranger paid for the basket and we discovered it when we got home. Sorry, buddy. But I'm sure there's some kind of natural balancing that happens at Trader Joe's. He probably got somebody else's Tasty Bite.

I froze a trayful of the blueberries and we've been munching handfuls of them all week, but stirring in my little Hungry Dog brain was the desire for something more satisfying. A little blueberry coffee cake with a crunchy, cinnamony topping.

This morning, I hunted around for a coffee cake recipe for which I had all the ingredients (I am not the kind of devoted morning baker that will make a trip to the store for a recipe--I must have all ingredients on hand to make something for breakfast). Lots of recipes I came across called for sour cream or buttermilk or plain yogurt, none of which I keep around. Finally, I went where I should have gone all along--to Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.

Now, readers, I have some mixed feelings about Mr. Bittman. Well, not about him. I think he is a great writer and I like his approach to food. But I do not always have the best luck with his recipes, particularly his baked goods.

In any case, I figured that armed with this knowledge I could make the best of the situation. His coffee cake recipe calls for milk, which I had, and not much in the way of flavorings other than cinnamon and walnuts. I decided to add cardamom to the cinnamon mixture, as well as to the batter. I think cardamom is an incredibly underused spice and goes very well with most berries. And of course I added the blueberries, tossing them in flour so they wouldn't sink.

The recipe was a bit strange. First you stir together the topping, pretty standard, although I did opt for the food processor so the butter would clump a bit--a trick I learned from Baking Illustrated. Then you make the dough, which calls for whisking together the dry ingredients and then stirring in cold cubed butter with a fork.

Ok, what?

I knew a pastry blender was needed and so pulled mine from the back of a drawer. But I wondered what an inexperienced baker would do. I don't think a single fork would do the trick. You could do the two knives thing in lieu of a pastry blender, but not a single fork.

Anyway, then you pour in an egg and some milk and mix it up. At this point I added the berries. It then says to pour half the batter into the pan. Here was another failure of the recipe. The batter came nowhere near to pouring. It was super sticky. I dumped about half of it in a giant glob into the pan and spread it out messily with my fingers. Then I sprinkled half the sugar-cinnamon mixture over it, spread over the rest of the dough, and finished with the remainder of the topping. I stuck it in the oven and wandered off to see what the husband and the dog were up to.

Well, the cake turned out just lovely. I guess I should have more confidence in Mr. Bittman. He is a professional, after all. But I still maintain that the recipe was a little weird.

We each ate a good-sized piece, and then I left to hang out with a friend for awhile. When I returned, another chunk of the cake was missing. The husband looked at me and shrugged.

"I took a nap and woke up with a sweet tooth," he said. Another reason I love this man.

The cake was also popular with Frances, the other hungry dog. I busted her nosing up to my piece when I set it down on the table.

Can't blame her for having good taste.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When you need a little snack

This may be hard to believe, but I am not a huge snacker. This seems at odds with my food-obsessed nature, but it's the truth. I guess I've never liked most snack foods all that much and I find them pretty easy to resist. I'd rather spend my indulgences on wine or dessert.

Sometimes I do like to fix a little something before dinner, though, if we're sitting around and getting a little hungry but not so hungry that I feel like cooking yet. My favorite thing to have in these cases is cheese and crackers. On the cracker front, I am pretty flexible. I can certainly appreciate a fancy cracker (I like those thick-cut olive oil and sea salt ones) but I can also throw down on some Triscuits. I am a little pickier when it comes to cheese. One I really love is d'Affinois, a French double-cream cow's milk cheese similar to Brie. I was introduced to this cheese about six years ago and since then have always preferred it to Brie. It's incredibly creamy and has a lovely, fresh flavor.

My favorite cheese, though, hands-down, is Cowgirl Creamery's Mount Tam. If you have never had Mount Tam, stop reading this silly blog and get thee to the creamery. Or if you don't happen to live within driving distance of Pt. Reyes, you can find this delightful cheese at Whole Foods. I love this cheese so much I don't let myself buy it unless I have the excuse of company coming over. Otherwise I go a little crazy. I also like their Red Hawk, but it's a little pungent.

But when there's no Mount Tam to be had, I bake some pita chips and whip up a little puree of cannellini beans. The chips are super simple--cut some pita bread into whatever shapes you like, toss with olive oil, coarse sea salt, and pepper (the key is to press the salt into the pitas) and bake for 18-20 minutes at 375 or 400, tossing once. I do them on convection, because it gets them nice and crispy.

The puree is easy too. I struggle with what to call this--bean dip is reminiscent of the weird peel-top refried stuff that shows up at Super Bowl parties, and hummus doesn't do it justice. I think hummus is OK, but often I find it a little on the gritty side, and too garlicky. Cannellini beans make a much creamier dip, and I vastly prefer the flavor. Garbanzo beans always taste like can to me, no matter how many times you rinse them.

What I do is rinse two cans of cannellini beans really well. Then I throw them in the food processor with some chopped rosemary and pulse it a little. After that I add the juice of two lemons, olive oil, and lots of salt and pepper. You can add as much or as little of anything as you like. I try to lean on lemon more than oil, but I never skimp with salt. Salt makes or breaks the puree.

Of course, you could add anything you like to this--garlic, or other fresh herbs. I tend to make it the same way because I always have lemons, oil, and fresh rosemary on hand. I like that in spite of its humble ingredients, this emerges a rather elegant snack, one I often serve to guests. What they usually say is, "Did you make this hummus? It's amazing!" I always want to correct them and say it's not hummus, it's a white bean puree. But I suppose that's not being a very gracious host. So I just load up a pita chip with the creamy, herb-flecked puree and nod and smile. Who cares what it's called, anyway? If it tastes good, that's what matters.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Corn muffins with Bing cherries

Returning home after vacation is always a bit of a shock. It's amazing how quickly one can get used to whiling away the days, making every decision based on desire and not responsibility. The husband and I returned to foggy, freezing weather, and, of course, work. We'd both developed a deep sense of indignity that we were expected to put on work clothes and report to offices when we had proven ourselves to be so good at applying sunscreen and ordering tropical, rum-laden drinks. Of course, this indignity was not only directed at no one, it was pointless. Work is a fact of life for most of us.

Returning home did have two things going for it, one being the other hungry dog, who enjoyed a week cavorting in Marin County with friends, and the other being cooking. Don't get me wrong, I love going out to eat, but after a week of no cooking, I start to get the itch.

Of course, our fridge and pantry were looking pretty pathetic, as I'd done such a good job of clearing things out before we left. Upon our return Monday evening, we immediately ensured we had the critical staples (coffee and beer) but left a big grocery run until this afternoon.

This morning, though, I was in the mood to bake. Although we had little to work with, we did have the core ingredients for corn muffins. I used a basic recipe from Ina Garten, which suggests you inject raspberry preserves into the muffin after they are baked. There's something about this I find a little gross. So, I whipped up the plain corn batter, which I knew to be sweet and rich, and unearthed the Bing cherries I'd pitted and frozen a few weeks ago.

Muffins always look really tidy when you pop them out of the pan, and even when you peel off the paper they hold their cute, compact little shape. But who can resist breaking into one immediately? For people who write cookbooks telling you to let things cool completely or even partially before eating them, I suggest they wake up and smell the, er, muffin. It's enough to have to wait for said baked good to get out of the oven. What am I, an idiot? I'm not going to stand around hungrily while my delicious little muffin drops in temperature. Hell, it's my kitchen.

Once the paper was off and the muffin busted open, things got messy, and delicious.

By the way, the frozen cherries worked out perfectly. It was great to have something on hand to brighten up some good but otherwise rather pedestrian corn muffins. The baked cherries had a deep, almost almondy flavor that made the muffins seem a little decadent, and you can't beat that beautiful purple color. I often make these muffins with blueberries or fresh raspberries, but after today, I think cherries might be the best choice of all.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A week of living slowly

Most of the time, I like living in San Francisco. I do get tired of the crap summers, and sometimes I think it would be nice to live somewhere flat. And sure, the idea of renting until I drop dead because we can't afford to buy a place seems like a bit of a bummer. But most of the time, I like it here. And after 13 years, I feel like a native. I know how to get everywhere, and how the neighborhoods are different, and where to get the best shrimp and leek dumplings (San Tung), tea leaf salad (Burma Superstar), and roast chicken (Zuni, natch). When I go other places, I feel proud to say I'm from San Francisco.

Except for when I go to Kauai. When I go to Kauai, I feel embarrassed by how expensive and materialistic life is here in the Bay Area, and I think how great it would be to live somewhere warm and mellow, where instead of row upon row of buildings, you see hills and ocean and wild chickens. Somewhere where the maximum speed limit is 50 and McDonalds makes a McTeri burger. Yes, as in teriyaki.

My husband always says that much of why I love it there is because everyone sort of looks like me--part Asian and part white, just variations of brown and tan. It's true. I guess it's a bit narcissistic. But everyone's entitled to a little of that, right?

Anyhow, suffice it to say we had a great trip, with loads of swimming and snorkeling and lounging on the sand. We went to bed early and woke up before 7, and spent every day at the beach. The husband bought a little ukelele and plucked out pretty, aimless tunes while we hung out on our lanai and looked out at that blue-green water. We browsed the local stores full of furniture made of koa wood and brightly-colored jewelry. We went to a Matt Costa show. And, of course, we ate.

We went down to Poipu one day, where in addition to having a monk seal swim right by us, its smooth, steely gray body rising and falling with the waves, we checked out the newly famous Puka Dog.

At Puka Dog, you pick your dog (Polish or veggie), how hot you want your garlicky sauce (I chose mild), and which tropical relish you prefer, ranging from mango to pineapple to star fruit. I went with mango, which was surprisingly sweet but a nice counter to the peppery garlic sauce. Next time I'll try star fruit.

Twice we hit Tropical Taco in Hanalei, where I am determined to move someday, with or without the husband. I will sell t-shirts in a hut on the side of the road if I have to. It's happening. Anyway, we both love it there and spent many of our days at the beaches on the north shore, then stopping in Hanalei for lunch.

Tropical Taco used to operate out of a green van but a few years back got some of the precious little retail space in Hanalei. We had fish tacos twice, once with mahi mahi, and once with striped marlin, both delicious.

And of course we got shave ice. I got mine rainbow style, with three flavors (but can't we just admit they're more colors than flavors?)--raspberry, mango, and passionfruit, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream at the bottom. You can also get it with azuki beans, but I'm anti-bean when it comes to dessert. Sorry, Chinese relatives.

We also had lots of poke, sushi, and mixed plate lunches with shoyu chicken and pork adobo, snuggled up to two scoops of rice and mac salad. We even ate ridiculously good teri-burgers out of a gas station in Princeville that I've been fantasizing about ever since. And by some people's standards, we consumed a great deal of alcohol.

Kauai is the only place I've been to that I like better than where I live. Getting on the plane to come home, we both felt sad, knowing it would be awhile before we returned. Luckily, living in California makes getting to Hawaii pretty easy. There are many, many trips in our future, and one, I'm pretty sure, with a one-way ticket.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Hungry Dog goes on vacation

Although the timing is less than perfect with my little dog not well, we're off to Kauai tomorrow. The trip has been planned for awhile, and while we debated canceling it, she seems to feel fine. So we're crossing our fingers and leaving her with our dear friends who love her like, well, a daughter.

Preparing for Hawaii requires little more than throwing your bathing suit, some flip flops, and a few paperback novels in a bag. That's the beauty of the islands--you need very little to have a good time. But on the homefront, I found myself in a frenzy trying to use up all of the contents of our produce box in a few days. Some stuff will keep for the week we're gone, like onions, and possibly the giant melon. But other things we either use or say adios to.

Yet another sack of cherries awaited me. As you know, I recently had a less than perfect attempt at a cherry-port sauce, and I did not even write about the horrific cherry ice cream I made last week while the husband was away. The first night it was creamy and a gorgeous rosy shade. But by the next day, it was hard, chalky and pale gray. Never even took a photo of that one.

I figured one thing I could do with the cherries was freeze them for future use. I've never done that before but it has to work, right? So I washed, pitted, halved, and froze them on a sheet pan. Once frozen separately so they wouldn't clump together, I put them in a freezer bag and tucked them away in their icy den. Now in a few weeks I can make the cherry morning cake.

I also had some blueberries to use. So I made a batch of blueberry muffins. I used the Barefoot Contessa's recipe for cranberry harvest muffins, but only very loosely. She calls for all kinds of nuts and dried fruits--I believe these are part of the "harvest"--but as I think I've mentioned, I don't like lots of stuff in my muffins or cookies. I like to keep it simple. So I skipped all that stuff.

This is a great recipe and one I have made many times with cranberries. My only edit would be to reduce the amount of sugar--they're a little sweet otherwise. And, I only made a half recipe, which produces an awkward nine muffins, but oh well.

So, my friends, that's my last post for a week or so. I'm off for my Hawaiian dream vacation. When I return I'll have some photos of the great food we plan to eat at old favorites like Hamura Saimin and Tropical Taco, and hopefully of the much-talked about hot dogs at Puka Dog, which is new to us. Aloha!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Comfort me with spaghetti

It's been a rough few weeks Chez Hungry Dog. For one thing, the husband and I have both been dealing with some work stress. I know, we're supposed to be grateful that we have jobs--and we are. But that doesn't mean they don't bug us, and it certainly doesn't mean we can't complain about them.

The other thing is that we discovered our sweet dog is sick again. I can't even write about this, because it's slowly breaking my heart into tiny pieces, but suffice it to say, we've been spending as much time as possible at home with her, soaking up her lovely little essence and trying to be, although it is in neither of our natures, as much "in the moment" as possible.

Unfortunately the husband had to go on a work trip last week. In the nine years we've been together, we've rarely been apart, and that's the way we like it. Some people may call this co-dependent. I call it happy.

The other hungry dog and I got to get in some serious bonding time, which was great, but we were very pleased to see the husband return. Since then, comfort food has been in order.

There are plenty of foods that I'd identify as comfort foods, and it's no surprise that most of them are things that remind me of being a little kid. When I've got a cold, I love steamed chicken with ginger and scallions. My dad would make that when we were under the weather, steaming the chicken with black mushrooms, then serving it with scallions, ginger, and salt doused with a splash of hot oil to take the raw edge off.

I also love my mom's spaghetti. Not the most original comfort food, but an honest one. My recipe is based on hers, but over the years I've made it my own. Somewhere along the line I realized I didn't care much for ground beef (except in hamburgers) and started using ground turkey, usually a combination of light and dark meat. I also like to throw in some sweet Italian sausage. Other than that, the sauce has the usual suspects--onion, celery, carrot, tomatoes, and marjoram, which I prefer to oregano. I use a big glug of wine, and I finish it with fresh herbs, basil and parsley if I can. This time I also threw in some red and yellow heirloom tomatoes that were starting to look a little peaked.

On the night of the husband's return, I found comfort in assembling the sauce and letting it simmer away while we drank wine and he filled me in on his trip. The sauce turned out perfectly, the exact balance of sweet and acidic that I like. We ate steaming bowls of it as the dog sat next to me, her stony gaze switching steadily from the pasta bowl to my face. Give me some. As you know, her voracious appetite is the ultimate comfort to me. As much as I could, I just soaked it up, enjoying the moment. Sometimes that's the best thing you can do.