Sunday, June 27, 2010

Summer days

The days have been slipping away from me. In part it's the summertime effect; even though we're deprived of heat here in San Francisco, it feels like summer in its own way. It's foggy and cool in the mornings and evenings, burning off in the afternoon for a few hours of sunshine. The city seems less crowded; the pool where I swim, which belongs to a university, has endless open lanes now that students are gone; and scheduling with friends is all of a sudden trickier, with vacations and kids being out of school.

My days are busy and productive and largely enjoyable, but they leave less time for writing than I hoped. My poor blog is feeling neglected. While I still love this little space, I'm not cooking as much, nor am I carving out enough time to put together decent posts.

Luckily, a few weeks ago I did make one of my old standby recipes that I haven't yet posted about. This is yet another favorite from St. Marcella; I believe it was the second recipe of hers I ever tried (the first being her delicious and simple tomato-onion-butter sauce.)

This is a quick and satisfying recipe; the only thing you need to plan ahead for is to defrost the spinach. Not a big deal for those of you with microwaves, but for the microwave-less like me, defrosting spinach can take awhile. Once you've got that taken care of, the sauce, such as it is, comes together in less than the time it takes to cook the pasta.

I'm in love with this recipe. Spinach and ricotta is a heavenly combination; it reminds me of the version of gnocchi my mother always made when I was a kid: creamy dumplings of ricotta and spinach, bound with a little egg and flour, cooked in gently simmering water, then baked under a covering of parmesan and melted butter, and finally served with fresh tomato sauce.  I don't think I have to elaborate on my feelings about ham, although I'm willing to.

Like many of Marcella's recipes, I've adapted/Americanized this one over the 14 years I've been making it, and often add extra ham or ricotta. Although you can use fresh spinach, I'm not sure why you'd want to. Frozen spinach is one of the great joys of the modern world. In any case, I've reproduced the recipe here (nearly) in its original form so you can decide how faithful you want to be.

Spinach sauce with ricotta and ham
From Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

2 10-oz. packages frozen leaf spinach, thawed
1/4 lb. butter
2 oz. unsmoked boiled ham, chopped
whole nutmeg
1/2 c. fresh ricotta
1/2 c. freshly grated parmesan, plus extra for the table
1 lb. pasta (ridged penne or rigatoni)

With your hands, squeeze the moisture from the spinach, chop it fine, and set aside.

Put half the butter in a saute pan and turn on the heat to medium high. When the butter foam begins to subside, add the ham, turn it two or three times, then add the spinach and liberal pinches of salt. Bear in mind that aside from the ricotta, which has no salt, the spinach is the principle component of the sauce and must be adequately seasoned. Saute the spinach  over lively heat, turning it frequently, for about 2 minutes.

Off heat, grate in nutmeg--no more than 1/8 teaspoon.

Toss the cooked and drained pasta with the sauce, plus the ricotta, the remaining butter, and 1/2 c. grated parmesan. Serve at once, with additional parmesan on the side.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Alice's upside-down plum cake

Based on what I've been posting recently, you'd think I was made up of about 75% sugar. There was the blueberry buttermilk cake, the honey and vanilla pound cake, the almond rhubarb snack cake, and amidst those I was able to loosen my belt for some rhubarb streusel bars and chocolate chip cookies. I  have no business eating like this, but look at me go.

Recently, I had some plums that needed attention. Now, while I'm a friend to the crisp and the cobbler, over the last few years I've really developed a love of baking cakes. There's something infinitely satisfying to me about the simple steps involved -- creaming the butter, smoothing the batter into the pan, pulling the warm and fragrant cake from the oven -- and it never causes me the anxiety I feel with pastry dough. So while I may not be 75% sugar, I do think if I were a cartoon character and you could see clear through me, I'd be 50% cake, with the other half neatly split into quarters of wine and pork products. Sometimes I find it amazing that I open my eyes to live another day.

My most recent cake escapade took retro form: an upside-down cake. I have a few memories of upside-down cakes from growing up in the 70's; for some reason I never much cared for them. I wonder if it's because they were by and large pineapple, with freakishly bright maraschino cherries tucked inside the rings, which were themselves plucked from a can. I love pineapple, but I like it fresh and raw: hot pineapple seems weird to me.

I'm not afraid of other hot fruit though (although the phrase hot fruit sounds horrible) and after a bit of searching, I found a delicious-sounding recipe in Alice Waters's The Art of Simple Food for cranberry upside-down cake. I would have swapped the fruit anyway, but even the divine Ms. W. herself suggests you try whatever fruit you like.

The cake was both rich and light--a nice payoff from the effort of whipping and folding in the egg whites. And while I had to make the caramel in a saucepan and then transfer it to my cake tin, as I don't have either an 8-inch cast iron skillet or a flame-proof baking pan, it posed no problem. The sweet-tart caramel-soaked plums settled into the moist, buttery cake just the way I hoped they would, and to my surprise, the entire thing lifted easily out of the pan without leaving a single stray plum behind. Though it would have been doubly good with vanilla ice cream or softly whipped cream, it was perfectly delightful on its own: for dessert the first night, and breakfast the day after.

Please note that the original recipe (for Cranberry Upside-Down Cake) calls for 2 3/4 c. fresh cranberries cooked in a saucepan with 1/4 c. orange juice until the cranberries start to pop. Remove from the heat and pour over the cooled caramel.

Since I used plums and the recipe did not indicate how many, I used 8 or 10, which was plenty.

Upside-Down Plum Cake
From The Art of Simple Food

1 1/2 sticks (12 T) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 c. brown sugar
8-10 plums, depending on the size, pitted and cut into eighths, lengthwise
2 eggs, separated, at room temperature
1/2 c. whole milk, at room temperature
1 1/2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 c. granulated sugar
1 t. vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350.

Melt the brown sugar and 4 T. butter in an 8-inch cast-iron skillet or heavy-duty cake pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the butter melts and starts to bubble. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. (If, like me, you had to make the caramel in a saucepan, go ahead and pour it now into an 8-inch round or square cake pan.) Arrange the plums, rounded side down, in a ring around the outer edge. Working inward, make concentric circles with the plums until you fill up the pan.

In a medium bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a large bowl or in a stand mixer, beat the remaining 8 T. of butter to lighten. Add granulated sugar and cream until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time. Stir in vanilla.

When well mixed, add the flour mixture alternately with the milk, starting and ending with one-third of the flour. Stir just until the flour is incorporated.

Beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Fold one third of the egg whites into the batter and then gently fold in the rest. Pour the batter over the plums and smooth the top with a spatula.

Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan. (Mine cooked for 45 and came out perfectly but I'm starting to wonder if my oven runs cool).  Remove from the oven and allow the cake to cool for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and invert the cake onto a serving plate.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mahi mahi, with summer vegetables

Over the last month, I've become very fond of quick cooking. And if it's something speedy that can also come together in one pan, I like it even more. Minimal cook time and minimal clean up make for a happy, hungry dog.

Sometimes things that you'd think would be speedy can take awhile. Like a salad. The way I make salads, it always takes at least half an hour. You know, washing and drying the lettuce, peeling vegetables, toasting croutons, boiling an's simple but when all is said and done, my lovely salad usually leaves behind a pile of dishes.

So the other night, when we were a bit wrecked from a long day, too tired to even stumble down the hill for a burger, I decided the mahi mahi I had on hand was the perfect thing. I gathered some vegetables: green beans, carrots (which I skipped peeling), a few green onions. While I melted butter and olive oil in a big saute pan, I roughly chopped the vegetables and threw them in all at once. When they were 5 or 6 minutes from being done, I pushed everything to the edge of the pan and placed the mahi mahi fillets carefully in the center. One flip and they were done.

Dinner in 10 minutes. Well, more than that: a good dinner in 10 minutes. Not too shabby.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Blueberry buttermilk cake

Ok, full disclosure: this post is a cheat. I've posted about this recipe not once but twice before, once when I made it with raspberries and once when I made it with cranberries.

Is this a sign of blogging laziness, or just a great recipe?

Probably both. It's hard to keep the content fresh here. I've whined about this before, and I've heard other bloggers say the same thing, which makes me feel a little bit better. It's challenging to come up with new recipes all the time, and clever (or even dull) things to write about them. I can barely pull it together to post two or three times a week; I can't fathom how some people post every day.

Fussing aside, I'm still a huge fan of this recipe. It's simple and a total knockout. All you need is a little softened butter, buttermilk, and some kind of fruit. This time around, blueberries.

Just as a warning, you'll kind of want to eat the batter, which smells of vanilla and sugar and fresh berries, straight from the pan, unbaked. I want you to be prepared so you can plan accordingly. Maybe enlist someone to supervise you, keep your paws out of the cake. Someone other than a big friendly dog who also enjoys sampling cake, cooked or not. A dog who likes to hang out underfoot, catching stray blueberries that roll off the counter.

I can't really say that nobody got a lick of batter off the spatula. What happens in the kitchen, stays in the kitchen...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Working girl lunch

So far, working for myself is turning out pretty well. For one thing, I don't have a boss. It took me 36 years, but I finally realized I have a problem with authority. For another, I don't have to attend pointless, interminable meetings, or have to pretend to be a team player. I'm not part of any team and I don't have to act like I am. I fly solo, and I like it that way.

That's just the beginning. There are about a million other things I like about working for myself, including spending about 20 or so hours a day with Frances; working whenever I feel like it, maybe early in the morning or after dinner; and guilt-free breaks in the middle of the day to swim, blog, bake, or grocery shop. And, I get to eat lunch at home almost every day.

It's not that I don't enjoy going out to lunch; of course I do. But eating lunch at home is one of the ways in which my thriftiness manifests itself. Even if I have no obvious leftovers to turn into lunch, I pretty much refuse to go out. I'll eat sliced turkey on crackers or cobble together a lettuce-less salad with celery, olives, and canned tuna, all for sake of saving money.

What a cheapskate, you're thinking. Totally. I admit it. I'm actually weirdly proud of being able to scrape together a lunch of misfit food that ends up looking pretty good. I don't know why I am the way I am, but there's no changing me. I'll spend plenty of money on dinner with the husband or friends, tossing back oysters and bottles of wine, but I'm perfectly happy to scrounge for lunch.

It's best when you have some fresh ingredients to work with to balance out the questionable food. The other day, for example,  I had some several-days-old bread, peppery arugula, and fresh mozzarella, which I thought would be a perfect grilled cheese sandwich.  Left it unattended for too long, but you have to admit this looks pretty nice.

I also had some leftover soup to go on the side. Curried cauliflower, to be specific. It was delicious the night before, but tragically unphotogenic. When I served it for dinner, I slid a spoonful of sour cream into the bowl and grated lime zest over the top, which improved its appearance slightly. For lunch, I abstained from the sour cream, but since the soup still looked like liquid cardboard, I busted out the lime again. Yes, the same lime from the night before. That's another instance of my thriftiness: I'll cling to lemons and limes as if they're the last ones on earth, until they're dessicated little nubs. The husband will periodically pick one up from the counter, half zested or split in two, and ask, hopefully, "Compost?"

"I'm going to use that," I'll reply peevishly. "I'll squeeze it in a glass of water or on a salad."

Poor husband.

Anyhow, it's amazing what a tiny sprinkling of green can do, even to a soup that lay somewhere between beige and ecru.

It's hard to rival the soup and sammie combination. They're a perfect pair. Dip, crunch. Dip, crunch. Let's zoom in on that grilled cheese for a moment.

Yes, indeed. I've gotten used to these working lunches.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Shrimp ceviche a la chalaca

How many times does it take doing something before you can call it a tradition? In the case of my mother's shrimp ceviche: two.

Last Memorial Day, the husband and I trekked down to her house for a BBQ, with a soggy rhubarb crisp in hand. I still wince at the thought of that terrible dessert, which slowly imploded on the drive and was not much more than a fruit sauce by the time we arrived. Luckily, over the course of the year, this memory was counter-balanced by the fabulous ceviche my mother made. And this year, she made it again.

I think the recipe began as something she found in Food and Wine, but from the get-go she added her own touches. Unlike me, my mother is very good about annotating recipes with her additions and changes. So this year when Memorial Day rolled around and we began talking about the menu, she was ready to go with the ceviche.

She's named this "Shrimp ceviche a la chalaca," for two reasons. One, chalaca refers to someone who was born in Callao, Peru, which my mother happened to be. Yes, she is of Scandinavian descent. But she was born in Callao and lived in Lima until she was about 12. This is an interesting story for another day. Today's story is about ceviche.

Two, this ceviche reminded us both of some of the Peruvian ceviches we've eaten, often served with a delightful array of condiments, including toasted pumpkin seeds, crispy corn or hominy kernels, and boiled sweet potato, among others. Ultimately, this is my mother's take on Peruvian ceviche. Seeing as two years in a row, it's stolen the spotlight from all other sweet and savory dishes laid out on Memorial Day, I'd say she's done a pretty good job. And lucky you, here's the recipe.

Shrimp Ceviche a la Chalaca
Serves 4-6, depending

1 lb. medium shrimp
3/4 c. fresh lime juice
3 thinly sliced scallions
2/3 c. finely chopped red onion
1 large rib celery, chopped fine
1/2 c. minced cilantro  
12 small pear tomatoes, sliced or 1 medium seeded tomato, chopped
1 1/2 T. tarragon vinegar
1 1/2 T. olive oil
1 t. dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste

Optional garnishes: sliced avocado, toasted pumpkin seeds, slices of boiled sweet potato, olives, finely minced and seeded habanero pepper, crispy corn kernels, papaya slices, tortilla chips.

Clean and peel shrimp, removing the thin vein that runs along the top of the shrimp, and cook in boiling water just long enough to turn pink (1-2 minutes depending on size). Drain immediately and rinse with cold water to stop any residual cooking.

Marinate the shrimp in the lime juice at room temperature for about 1 hour.  Strain and discard juice.

Mix marinated shrimp with the rest of the ingredients and chill for 2-3 hours.
Serve on a bed of dressed (oil and vinegar) salad greens of your choice. Garnish ceviche as you prefer.

Cook's notes:  Diced green or sweet red pepper can be added to the shrimp mixture. Orange and lemon juice can be added to the marinade, too.

Please forgive the photo quality...blame the iPhone.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Rhubarb streusel bars with ginger icing

I think you've heard me talk about my sister here before. She sometimes comments as MisterJary--an inside joke that would only be pointless and even more exclusionary to explain--the way inside jokes always are. She's older than me by four years, and by some great stroke of luck, we have always been good friends. That's not a given, you know. Plenty of siblings just tolerate each other, or worse.

We're different in plenty of ways--she's much more educated than me (the girl has a Ph.D. from Brown), and she married youngish (27--compared to me getting hitched at 31). She has two kids (Mischievous Pug and Scrappy) and lives in New Jersey, working as a curator at a museum. Overall, I would say we have pretty different personalities. But we have a lot in common too, besides DNA and a shared childhood experience. We both swim, we both married southern boys, and we laugh at the same things. If I had to, I would trade all my friends for my one sister. Of course that's absurd; on what occasion would such a sacrifice be required? I sometimes like to envision extreme scenarios, though, just to imagine what I would do, and that's one of them. The point is, she's the best friend.

We talk on the phone every few weeks, marathon sessions until my phone starts beeping that it's about to die. We talk about the usual--work, husbands, kids, dog. But a lot of what we talk about is food.

She's a great cook, and in many ways is more adventurous in the kitchen than me. She'll often casually mention that she's started cooking something that I would never consider--like, Indian food. I go out for Indian food, I don't make it at home. But when you live in Princeton, NJ, your options are a little different than they are in San Francisco. If you want good Indian food, maybe you need to make it yourself.

Recently we've been discussing rhubarb. She mentioned a rhubarb cake that some German neighbors made for her that she had fallen in love with, in part because it wasn't as cloyingly sweet as some rhubarb desserts can be. I was interested in learning more about that. But when she mentioned rhubarb streusel bars with ginger icing, I was done. What a  brilliant combination! Plenty of sugar, I was sure, in comparison with the Germans' cake--I mean, streusel AND icing? That's something only an American would come up with. In fact, an American company did come up with it: the recipe is from a Penzeys catalog.

Although the bars have three steps (cookie base, fruit layer, icing), don't let that intimidate you. They are all extremely simple. The result is a perfectly sweet but not too sweet dessert that tastes like a fruit crumble in bar shape. The oats and brown sugar form a great chewy crust, and the rhubarb...well, you know about rhubarb. It's bright, tangy, and delicious. And the color is to die for.

So thanks, Jen, for passing on this great recipe, which has gone straight into my regular repertoire. I love it. I hope my readers like it, too. And I'll talk to you next Sunday.

Rhubarb Streusel Bars with Ginger Icing
From Penzeys


1 1/2 c. quick-cooking oats
1 c. flour
3/4 c. brown sugar
3/4 c. butter


1/4 c. sugar
2 T. flour
1/2 t. powdered ginger
2 c. sliced rhubarb

Ginger icing:

3/4 c. powdered sugar, sifted
1/4 t. powdered ginger
3-4 t. orange juice or milk (I used orange juice)

Preheat oven to 350.  Line an 8-inch square pan with heavy aluminum foil extended over the pan's edges.  In a large bowl, stir together the oats, flour, and brown sugar.  Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Scoop out 1 c. of the mixture and set aside.  Press the remaining mixture into the prepared pan and bake at 350 for 25 minutes.

In a medium bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, and ginger.  Add the rhubarb and toss to coat.  Spread over the hot crust.  Sprinkle with the reserved crust mixture and press lightly.  Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the top is golden and the filling is bubbly.  Cool completely on a wire rack. (This is important to do, otherwise the icing will melt away.)

For the icing, in a small bowl, combine the powdered sugar, ginger and enough liquid for a good drizzling consistency.  Drizzle over the bars while still in the pan.  Lift the foil from the pan and cut into bars.  Serve right away.   Store leftovers in fridge or freeze.

Serves 16  (Seriously? Maybe 8 or 9)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cakebread chicken, with orange and olives

I don't mean to be braggy, because there are lovely things about living almost anywhere, but one of the best things about living in the Bay Area is that you can drive to Napa Valley for the afternoon. In just over an hour, you can be winding through some of the most gorgeous terrain in the world, headed toward the home of the French Laundry and vineyard upon vineyard.

A few years ago, the husband and I stayed in Yountville for a few days (at this wonderful place). While an afternoon trip is great, staying for a night or two is even better. First of all, you can eat in any number of delicious restaurants (like Bouchon, which I've been dreaming of ever since). Second, you can spend all day drinking wine without worrying about driving home.

I'm not sure when I realized it, but not drinking wine would be a deal-breaker for me in a potential partner. I get that there are all kinds of perfectly understandable reasons why someone would not or could not drink. I know this, and it's none of my business. But, I would find it incredibly difficult to be married to someone who didn't get giddy about wine.

Luckily, the husband also shares this standard, and together we live a boozy, happy life. (Oh, I'm kidding...sort of.)

Anyway, on this trip we visited a number of vineyards, including Merryvale, Caymus, and Cakebread Cellars. Not only do they make all kinds of delicious wines at Cakebread, but the grounds are stunning, which we enjoyed on a leisurely tour. At the end of our visit, I bought the Cakebread cookbook. It's a beautiful book I've poured over many times, but I am embarrassed to say I had not made a single thing from it until this weekend, when I decided to make orange-braised chicken with bay leaves and black olives.

The wait was worth it. This is a simple recipe, requiring no chopping, that comes together in less than an hour. I used chicken thighs instead of a whole chicken, and kalamata olives instead of oil-cured (because that's what I had; oil-cured would have been better, and prettier). Served over Moroccan couscous with almonds and currants, it was a quick and elegant dinner I'm certain to revisit.

Orange-braised chicken with bay leaves and black olives
from The Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley Cookbook

Serves 4 to 6

2 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 small fryer chicken (about 3 1/2 pounds), cut into 8 pieces
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 c. fresh orange juice
1/4 c. dry white wine
2 bay leaves (they recommend Turkish over California)
3 small dried red chiles
1/2 c. pitted oil-cured black olives, soaked in water for one hour

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottom stainless steel saute pan or skillet over high heat. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Cook for about 3 minutes per side, until browned. Transfer the breast pieces only to a plate. Push the remaining chicken pieces to one side of the pan and pour out any oil. Add the orange juice and wine to the pan and decrease the heat to low. Tuck the bay leaves and chiles between the chicken pieces. Cook, covered, on a low simmer for 10 minutes. Return the chicken breasts to the pan and cook for 10 more minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a plate and increase the heat to high. Cook for 5-7 minutes, until the liquid becomes thick and syrupy. Return the chicken to the pot and toss to coat with the sauce. Add the olives and cook for 1-2 minutes. Serve hot.

Enjoy with Cakebread Cellars Rubaiyot, Napa Valley Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir.