Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Recipe: Judith's plum torte

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Italian prune plums say autumn to me in a way few other foods can. When I was just out of college and living in New York, teaching myself to cook by watching PBS on lazy Saturday afternoons, I'd walk from my apartment near Lincoln Center up to the original, somewhat shabby Fairway market on Broadway, and in early fall these egg-shaped purple beauties would be overflowing one of the bins outside the store. They were cheap - maybe 49 cents a pound at the height of their appearance - and I'd no idea what to do with them, but I bought them anyway.

Luckily, my friend Judith - who grew up in a baking household, very much unlike mine - did know what to do with them. She made a simple fruit torte, a soft vanilla-scented batter in a round springform pan, which she topped with these plums, cut in half, pushed flesh side down into the batter. Twenty years later, she and I both still make this cake, because it works with any seasonal fruit. But when I make it with these plums, I feel young again: short hair, a burnt-orange vintage suede jacket whose fringe had definitely seen better days, pushing my cart up Broadway as summer turned to fall in Manhattan and I learned what it meant to grow up.

Judith's plum torte
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 8-10 Italian prune plums, pitted and halved 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray.

In a stand mixer - or, for you very strong bakers, in a bowl with a wooden spoon - cream together 1 cup of the sugar and the butter. Add the eggs and beat well to combine. Stir together the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl, then add to the butter mixture and combine. Pour the batter into the pan, then arrange the plums, flesh side down, over the batter. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar. Bake 1 hour or until top is golden and fruit juices are bubbling around the sides. Cool in the pan, then remove to a serving plate.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bacon corn fritters, fig goat cheese tart, Jewish holiday recipes, and more: Catching up

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I know it looks here as if I've been neither cooking nor writing for the past few weeks, but it ain't so. I've been cooking. I've been writing. But I've also been launching a new business Q&A site at work, called Answers ( and yes, please, go take a look!), which took nearly six months to bring around. And, the day after it launched, we had 35 people at our house for the first night of Rosh Hashanah. Which was GREAT, and fun, and a lot of work.

I'm also getting ready for the BlogHer Food conference in San Francisco this weekend. It should be a great time for those of us in the obsessive food blogging world: In addition to a whole day of speakers, presentations and how-to sessions, there are pre-parties, cocktail parties, after-parties, and, I hear, quite a bit of swag. Note to self: Better pack an extra suitcase. I plan to come home loaded to the gills.

So what exactly has been going on in my kitchen lately? A lot of bye-bye summer, hello fall. The fresh corn and bacon fritters pictured above will only be possible for another few weeks, I think, because fresh corn generally dies out in southern California a few weeks before Halloween. They're among my most-requested recipes of all time, and what's not to like, after all? Corn, bacon, green onions, a little parsley, tucked into a thick pancake batter with a splash of hot sauce, then fried in dollops in a combination of butter and olive oil. Decadent, but always the first thing to go at a potluck. I made the short-lived batch in the photo for a barbeque at the home of Aaron Vanek, the LA Cocktails Examiner, who, by the way, is an amazing writer. I don't drink much, but I love reading his columns, because they're only in small part about the booze.

I've also been on a tart binge. There's this fresh fig and goat cheese tart with rosemary (above), made with figs from a dear friend's tree. And then I did a savory tart with beet greens and cheese, a French-ish take on the typical Greek spinach pie. Plus a few fruit tarts whose recipes I haven't yet written up, with Italian prune plums, pears, and the last of the season's super-sweet pluots. The tart frenzy was inspired by a recipe for a no-roll press-in crust made with olive oil, which I found in my eighth reading of Food52 co-founder Amanda Hesser's wonderful memoir Cooking for Mr. Latte. I hate rolling pins and am scared of traditional pie and tart crusts. The press-in thing has changed my dessert-making forever.

And here are a few of the recipes I wish I'd had time to make for Rosh Hashanah: Akasha Richmond's plum tart, Iron Chef contender Eric Greenspan's apple-honey noodle kugel, Alain Cohen's round challah with fresh figs, JDate's egg souffle (although I might still make that for Yom Kippur), and Joanne Adirim's honey cranberry almond bars.

What did I actually make? The easiest chicken possible, and my new go-to: Roasted chicken with garlic salt and smoked paprika. You won't believe how much flavor this dish packs. I've used the leftovers in chicken salad, quesadillas, and sandwiches. It's amazing. And I don't know about your Costco, but mine now sells smoked paprika in very large plastic containers. Score.

So what's next? Let's see what the season brings....

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lunch at the Shangri-La in Santa Monica, again

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Yes, yes, I already wrote about lunch at the Shangri-La, back in June. But since then a new chef has taken over, the charming and unpretentious Dakota Weiss. And my friend Sarah, whose job as hotel publicist actually requires her to have people like me in for lunch, wanted me to come in and experience the new menu.

Let me say first that the dining room at the Shangri-La is far too elegant a place for the state in which I showed up. I bike to work, which means that when I have lunch appointments I bike to those too - so I arrived sweaty, out of breath, and with a nasty case of helmet-head. The dining room is at the front of the hotel, overlooking Ocean Avenue and the Pacific. Though it's not the kind of linens-and-china formal you often get with a hotel restaurant, it's got a dark, sleek, deco feel, very much in keeping with the rounded edges of the deco-era building. Maybe elegant is the wrong word: It's a stylish room that looks like everyone should have a martini glass in hand. I really like it - it makes me want to dress better. Even in Santa Monica.

People kept sitting down to join us for a few minutes here and there, so we ended up with a lot of different dishes to taste. Sarah ordered this salad of beets, bresaola, and arugula in a creme fraiche vinaigrette:

Someone ordered the hamachi crudo, raw yellowtail with curls of thinly sliced watermelon, smooth whipped avocado, micro-cilantro, and a spicy green salsa - maybe tomatillo?

We also got a peek at (and taste of) the new cured meat and cheese boards they're playing with, which I don't think are on the menu yet:

The boards themselves were hand-sanded and oiled by Mark, the restaurant's designer, during the Labor Day weekend (his kids helped him). They were lovely, but some of the foodstuffs being served on them were just glorious. I particularly liked the quince mustard (the light brown glop that appears on both boards), which chef Dakota Weiss makes in the hotel kitchen. The foie gras mousse, in the white ramekin, was also notable; Dakota soaks the foie in port wine before pureeing it with butter to turn it into a spread with the texture of whipped cream, and the flavor of the port lingers noticeably. Here's a better shot of the foie gras and cured meats:

The other really interesting thing on this platter was the mustard with grape must, near the front of the board. It tasted strongly of both mustard and sweet red wine - almost unrecognizable to me as mustard at first, but certainly not readily defined. I ate most of it straight from a spoon. (I've never seen it in a store, but Dakota said they buy it, so it's probably like this one.) In case you weren't aware, I am a condiment freak.

If you go to the Shangri-La, you might also want to order the burrata flatbread with truffle oil and cherry tomatoes, which is on the pool menu but available in the dining room. It was messy and drippy, but worth it. Of course, you might be smart enough to eat it with a knife and fork from the outset, which I was not.

Things we tasted which I didn't get to photograph included a beautiful corn soup, smooth and soft, with overtones of bacon and a popcorn garnish; a deconstructed Caesar with red and green Romaine, and fried white anchovies; and some kind of chicken to which I paid no mind, because the french fries that came with it were so good that they had my full attention.

And then there was dessert: a peanut butter and banana mousse, and a salted caramel custard, both of which were very good:

I realize that not everyone gets to have the chef sit down at her table for a quarter-hour to talk about her mother's perfect roast chicken and why popcorn makes the perfect garnish for soup. But I did, and I'm so glad. If you go to the Shangri-La, ask to meet Dakota, the chef. She is absolutely lovely and genuine, and I think she truly cares that the people eating in her dining room have a good meal that makes them sigh with pleasure. Her previous kitchen, at a large restaurant in Philadelphia, served hundreds of people at each meal, while here at the Shangri-La the numbers are somewhat more intimate. That's a good thing for a chef: More time for the personal touch, more opportunity to experiment and exercise her creativity.

One more note on the setting: The dining room itself is pretty small, but there's a huge dining area outside near the pool, including some private dining cabanas whose curtains provide privacy when it's wanted. Next time I'm eating outside. I hear brunch on the weekends around the pool is quite a scene.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Emery's Asian greens soup

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See the lovely bowl of soup above? Emery, age 10 1/2, made it all by himself.

One of the advantages of growing up in a family where Mom loves to cook and writes about food, and Dad loves to eat and has impeccable taste, is that your chances of turning out to be of the Foodie persuasion are high. (In our family's case, the odds seem to be precisely 50/50, as Emery's younger brother hasn't demonstrated the same tendencies.)

My mother will point out that the Foodie gene has disadvantages as well, those related to waistlines. But if this is the way Emery chooses to exercise his Foodieness, I'm less concerned about that.

Emery's been interested and helpful in the kitchen for a few years now. He's taken on more and more complex tasks; his knife skills are quite good, and he's comfortable at the stove. But he'd yet to take a recipe all the way through. Yesterday he was leafing through one of his favorite cookbooks (Asian Greens by Anita Loh-Yien Lau - yes, he reads cookbooks for fun, just like his mom) and asked if he could make one of the simple soups all by himself. And I thought: Yes, it's time.

So I sent him and his dad shopping, and when they came home, I got ready to be his sous. And truthfully, I did very little. I reminded him to wash the grit off the bok choy, and I showed him what size I thought "julienne" meant in the context of Napa cabbage. And then I stood back, and he did the rest.

The soup is very simple: Simmer chicken stock with Napa cabbage for a few minutes, add bok choy and simmer a few minutes more, then remove from the heat, add a shot of sesame oil and a dash of white pepper, and you're done. Clean and clear. The perfect thing for an afternoon snack.

Did it taste better because he did it on his own? Probably. And he was so, so proud. As was I, of course.