Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Radish truffle butter sandwiches

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Radish and truffle butter tartines (photo: Robert Takata of Guzzle & Nosh)

If you got here from the Trufflepalooza article in the Los Angeles Times, welcome! I'm so glad you stopped by! - Erika

When I was planning the menu for my first Trufflepalooza party in 2009, I threw these open-faced radish sandwiches with truffle butter in at the last minute. Little did I know that this would become one of my signature dishes. 

I'm a huge fan of the radish and believe it is seriously underutilized by American cooks - in fact, I will bet good money that my simple radish salad recipe will change your life. Go ahead, try it and tell me you still see radishes only as a garnish. I dare you.

The combination of clean, crisp radishes and earthy truffles is magical. I had no idea this was true before I made these radish truffle sandwiches for the first time. It was just dumb luck, inspired by the classic French combination of radishes, butter and salt. But I'll take dumb luck and call it a flash of inspiration to anyone who asks.

Now I make these radish and truffle butter sandwiches as a nibble for almost every party I throw. There are always a few skeptics. They're always won over. The tray always ends up empty.

Notes: I make my own truffle butter, but you certainly don't have to. High-quality truffle butter is available at most gourmet stores. The grated fresh truffle is optional, too, but don't skip the sprinkle of truffle salt (I like Sabatino truffle sea salt). I've made these with the bread toasted and not - I prefer not, actually, but either way works.

P.S. Thank you Shockingly Delicious for calling these radish and truffle butter sandwiches "Best New Appetizer" - I'm honored!

print recipe

Radish and truffle butter tartines
A twist on the classic French combination of radishes and butter. The dusky truffle plays so well with the tangy radish that this has become one of my favorite cocktail nibbles.
  • 1 baguette, thinly sliced (about 30 pieces)
  • 1 bunch round red radishes
  • 4 Tbsp truffle butter (look for this at gourmet stores, or make your own truffle butter - click here for my recipe)
  • truffle salt (look for this at gourmet stores - can substitute sea salt)
  • freshly grated black truffle (optional)
Lay the baguette slices out on a work surface. Using a mandoline, slice the radishes as thinly as you can. I leave the stem on and use that as a handle - if you use the safety holder that comes with your mandoline, your radish slices will end up with holes in them, which I find unattractive. Do be careful with your fingertips, though.To assemble: Spread a thin layer of truffle butter on each slice of baguette. Top with two overlapping slices of radish. Continue until all the bread slices are covered with radish, then sprinkle truffle salt lightly over the whole batch. Move the sandwiches to a serving platter. If using the fresh truffle, grate it over the sandwiches when they get to the serving platter - the errant bits of truffle look beautiful on the tray.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: about 30 pieces

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fresh corn pancakes (not arepas, but don't tell my kids)

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Last year Weston, my eight-year-old, did a school research project on Venezuela. While he was working on the obligatory food section of his report, he and I were both intrigued by the description of Venezuelan arepas. Griddled corn flour bread, often stuffed with cheese or meat...sounded really tasty.

I'll be the first to admit that I've never had an authentic Venezuelan arepa. To appease Weston, I called these fresh corn pancakes arepas when I made them, but if I'm to believe the photos I found online, they're not even close. True Venezuelan arepas are made with a special, finely milled corn flour, most commonly Harina PAN. They're more like bread, whereas these are more like fritters. Let's say mine are "inspired by" the idea of arepas. Whatever you call them, you'll like them.

I happened to have leftover corn pulp on hand - the stuff that was left in the sieve after making the creamy corn soup with truffles for Trufflepalooza 2010. I don't expect you to go to such great lengths. Fresh corn cut off the cob and whizzed in the blender or food processor will do nicely, and in fact it will probably taste better - I'd already sucked much of the flavor out of my corn before making these pancakes. In a pinch, I bet you could use defrosted frozen corn instead of fresh. Try it and let me know.

Fresh corn pancakes
  • 3-4 ears of fresh, sweet corn
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • canola or grapeseed oil, for frying
Cut the corn kernels off the cobs. Put the corn kernels into a food processor or blender and process briefly. You want them to be broken up but not fully pureed; leave it chunky. Put the corn into a large mixing bowl and add the egg, flour, cornmeal, shredded cheese and salt. Mix well.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, fry dollops of the mixture in the oil until golden brown and crispy on both sides. Blot briefly on a plate lined with paper towels, then serve immediately.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Homemade bagels at Nunyuns in Burlington, Vermont

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Roasted tomato zucchini stew

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Tomatoes, zucchini and basil: Is there a better way to put summer on a plate? I wish I could say that the ingredients for this roasted tomato zucchini stew came from my garden, but alas, coastal southern California is not kind to tomatoes and zucchini - mine get mildew, fungus, blight, or some other ailment whenever I'm brave enough to plant them. Fortunately, the farmers who sell at our local markets live inland, where even during cool summers like this one they get enough heat to ripen their tomatoes.

These tomatoes, in fact, came from my friend Bennett, who has more than 20 tomato plants growing in his backyard in the Hollywood hills. We dropped off our younger son for a playdate and came home with 10 pounds of gorgeous, ripe tomatoes in varying colors and sizes. I cut the smaller ones in half and the bigger ones into wedges and oven-roasted them for a few hours, then added them to zucchini that I'd sauteed with onions and garlic. Roasting the tomatoes adds an extra step, but I think it's worth it - you just can't get that intense flavor otherwise.

I'm cutting down on carbs these days (doctor's orders), so I ate this with a spoon, but it would be extraordinary over pasta. And it was great at room temperature the next day.

Roasted tomato zucchini stew
  • 1.5 lbs fresh tomatoes (not cherry tomatoes)
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil, divided
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 yellow onion, diced
  • 4 medium zucchini
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, minced or cut into thin strips (chiffonade)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Slice the tomatoes into thick wedges. Place the wedges on a parchment- or foil-lined baking sheet, skin-side down; you want the flesh of the tomatoes exposed to the hot air inside the oven. Drizzle with 2 Tbsp olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake the tomatoes about 90 minutes, or until they are starting to shrivel and brown around the edges. They won't be dry - you just want to get some of the water out of them and concentrate the flavors.

Meantime, slice two of the zucchini into thin half-moons. Grate the other two. The grated zucchini will melt into the stew and give it body, while the sliced zucchini will stay more or less intact.

When the tomatoes are done, start the stew: Heat the remaining 2 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat and add the onion. When the onion has softened, raise the heat a little and add the sliced zucchini. (Zucchini has a lot of water, so it's important to raise the heat at this point - you want the zucchini to brown, not steam.) Saute the zucchini until most of it is golden brown, then add the garlic. Saute one minute, then add the tomatoes and shredded zucchini. When the mixture is bubbling, turn down the heat. Simmer uncovered about an hour, or until the stew no longer looks watery. Sprinkle with grated cheese and basil. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Vermont food, Vermont friends

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I'm on the first real vacation I've taken in a year and a half. And I earned it. In the past 18 months I've gone back to work full-time at Business.com after eight years at home with my kids; written about food both here and in my LA Cooking Examiner column at least five times a week; and more or less managed to maintain my role as involved mom, family cook, and frequent hostess. I hear "I don't know how you do it all" very often. (There are a few secrets: a supportive husband who picks up all my slack and does the chores I hate, a short commute, and years of experience writing on deadline.)

Nevertheless, even the most productive people sometimes need a break, and I'm taking one. Emery, my 11-year-old, had to be delivered to music camp in Vermont, and there's really no way to get there except to drive. It's a two-week camp, so it didn't make sense to come home between trips. I used it as an excuse to take the kind of trip I love, crave, and can't get in southern California. I've planned two weeks of seeing all the people I rarely see because they stayed on the East coast and I didn't. Have car, will drive country roads to reconnect with old friends. And meet new ones.

Kirsten and I went to Kinhaven music camp together 30 years ago

Burlington food writers Suzanne Podhaizer (@feedmenow) and Lara Dickson (@DeepDishCreates) took me to Penny Cluse, one of their favorite breakfast spots

I'm a New Yorker, but summer in Vermont feels like part of my DNA. I spent three teenage summers at Kinhaven, the same music camp Emery's attending now. Those three summers were the most formative part of my life - so much so that I named my second child after it. Even now, living in southern California, April rolls around and I start fantasizing about my little cabin in Vermont. I spend hours looking at real estate online until my practical husband reminds me, again, that Vermont is kind of inaccessible from southern California for those of us who work for a living. I stop looking, reluctantly, in July, when it's full-on summer and I know I'll be spending it in Santa Monica instead of in the Green Mountains. But it's a primal urge, one that reappears like clockwork when the trees in Vermont are starting to think about making leaves again and the great-great-grandchildren of the blades of soft, green grass on which I walked barefoot for months at a time form underground.

There are things about my life in Los Angeles that still feel foreign and wrong to me. Some are topographical; I don't think I'll ever fully adjust to the dry, dusty backdrop of southern California. I was thirsty for the entire first year I lived in L.A. I look at our local mountains and the desert and I know that objectively they're beautiful, but I have trouble seeing past the brown rocks and dust.

But other things in my life sometimes feel like a bad fit, too. They're the compromises one makes in any partnership. I love my husband, but I chafe silently at some of his rules. He won't drive with the windows down. No singing along with music, any music, anywhere. I know he hates some of my rules, too. That's life. That's what we do to stay married, to be able to live with someone, to keep our partners happy. And it's well worth the trade-off. But sometimes, sometimes, I need to reclaim some of the "me" things. I can't be the only one...right?

This week has been glorious for me: driving the backroads of green, green New England with the windows down, singing at the top of my lungs, stopping when I felt like stopping, eating good food. I toured a goat farm in West Pawlet and a cheddar factory in Brattleboro (more on those in separate posts). And I visited with people I really care about. By the end of the trip, I'll be ready to go home. And I'll be recharged. Here's hoping my kid likes camp so I can do it again next year.

Some images from my first few days on the road:

A nervous Emery at Newfane Cafe and Creamery, where we stopped for lunch before arriving at camp

Emery's crab cake sandwich at Newfane Cafe and Creamery

Cuban panini with cucumber salad at Newfane Cafe and Creamery

The counter at Newfane Cafe and Creamery - they were hawking the hand-cut fries, but we resisted

Creative furniture at Newfane Cafe and Creamery

Kirsten, her mom and I picked 12 quarts of blueberries at a u-pick farm in Richmond, outside of Burlington - and then ate two quarts in the car on the way home

Baked goods at Nunyuns, a popular brunch spot in Burlington

A phenomenal kale and goat feta quesadilla at Penny Cluse in Burlington, featuring local Vermont ingredients

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Anadama bread recipe from The Kinhaven Cookbook

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A few days ago I drove Emery, my 11-year-old son, to Kinhaven Music School in Weston, Vermont. It was an emotional day for two reasons. 

First, this is Emery's first sleepaway camp experience, a milestone in any kid's (and parent's) life. He handled it well. He was happy but nervous the whole way up from New York. Once we got there, he introduced himself to the other boys in his cabin, and off they went to pick blueberries and black raspberries over by the garden shed. When it was time for me to leave, I had to look for him. And there was no separation anxiety drama - not that I was expecting any. This is the kid who at four years old told me "Mommy, I want you to make a playdate for me every day at someone else's house. You can come pick me up after dinner." Not the clingy type.

Second, Kinhaven is the same music camp I went to myself as a teenager. The three summers I spent there turned me into the person I am today. It was partly about instilling a love of music, but much more about finding kindred spirits, which I'd found hard growing up on Long Island. I am still close with a half-dozen of my Kinhaven friends, very close, despite the fact that we're scattered around the country.

Kinhaven was such a strong influence on  my life that I named my second child after it - that's how he got the name Weston. I've told my husband that when I die I want my ashes scattered there. You get the point. It's important to me. And now I'm passing that experience on to Emery. I was very clear with him about the fact that he should like it or not like it on his own terms, for his own reasons. He doesn't have to like it just because I liked it. But of course I hope he does, and I'm glad he's getting the chance to find out.

As it happens, the food at Kinhaven is really, really good. The kitchen bakes its own bread, gets produce from local Vermont farms, and makes legendary butterscotch brownies. A long time ago, before I even knew how to cook, I got a copy of The Kinhaven Cookbook, dreaming, I guess, of recreating the tastes of my youth, the flavors of the happiest time in my life.

My copy is faded and torn now. This summer's cook, Nikki, told me she'd heard the Vermont Country Store in Weston had a few copies, but it's not in their catalog, so I'm hoping the pages don't actually disintegrate on me. The recipes are for massive quantities. It's hard to make them as written; I don't have to feed 100+ people that often. But I know Emery will come home craving the tastes of his summer. I'm committed to adapting them.

The Kinhaven bread I remember most clearly is the anadama bread, a soft, sweet bread with cornmeal and molasses - it's the history of New England in every slice. That, I think, will be my first attempt. The original recipe below uses an industrial mixer and makes two huge loaves, but I'll cut it in half and make several smaller loaves. I'll spread it with soft butter and hand Emery a slice. If he's anything like his mother, I'll see tears in his eyes.

Anadama bread from The Kinhaven Cookbook

"The campers are always surprised to see this high, light, yellow bread, which is a shame, since it is one of the glories of American cooking and unique in the world. On the last day of camp, after the Chorale of the Bach Cantata that ends the final concert, everybody goes outside to hug each other and say goodbye and cry, and also to eat sandwiches. We make Seafood Salad on Anadama Bread and they are always eaten first."

In the Big Mixer combine:
  • 2 quarts very hot water from the tap
  • 2 quarts cornmeal
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered milk (optional)
The last ingredient is optional. Bread made out of water has a livelier, more bready taste because nothing impedes the flavor of the flour. If you add milk, fresh or powdered, your bread will be more nutritious and will keep much better than water-based bread, but it will be slightly duller and heavier.

After the ingredients above have been mixed and cooled to lukewarm, add 1/2 cup yeast.

A half hour later or so, when the mixture is light and yeasty (or the next morning if you are using the Sponge Method), add:
  • 3 Tbsp salt
  • 8 eggs
  • 8 quarts white flour
Knead 10 minutes with the dough hook, turn into a greased bowl, and let it double. Cut into and shape two 2.5-pound loaves, let them double, bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Grilled zucchini rolls with ricotta and mint pesto

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I'm always looking for tasty little nibbles to serve before dinner with a glass of Prosecco or white wine. These darling little grilled zucchini rolls stuffed with ricotta and mint make a perfect summer cocktail snack. They take a little bit of time - making the pesto, grilling the zucchini strips, mashing up the filling, then assembly - but they won't suffer at all from an hour or two in the refrigerator between when you make them and when they appear on your table.

Sadly, and happily, I am the only member of my family who really likes zucchini. Sad for them. As for me - I'm delighted. The last time I made these, I ate half the batch right then and there, standing at the kitchen counter.

I used a mixed-herb pesto heavy on the mint, but a traditional basil pesto would work well too. (Yes, a store-bought one will work in a pinch.) Basil and mint marry well, so use mint leaves if you've got them, or basil leaves if no mint appears. You'll end up with extra pesto for sure, but you'll find a hundred uses for it: pasta, crostini, grilled cheese sandwiches, salad dressing....

Oh, and one word for those trying the low-carb thing: LUNCH.

Grilled zucchini rolls stuffed with ricotta and mint
  • 4 cups mixed herbs, including mint, parsley, chives, tarragon, oregano, basil, and whatever else you like, washed and dried as well as possible
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup roasted, salted almonds (I prefer Marcona almonds from Spain)
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Romano or Grana Padano cheese
  • juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for grilling
  • 5-6 small zucchini
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • about 30 fresh mint leaves
First, make the herb pesto: In your food processor, put the herbs (minus any woody stems, as from the oregano or tarragon), garlic, almonds, grated cheese, lemon juice and lemon zest. Process until all the ingredients are finely chopped. With the processor running, add the olive oil through the feed tube in a slow stream; process until the mixture is relatively smooth. Set aside.

Heat a grill pan or your outdoor grill until medium-hot. Slice the zucchini lengthwise into strips about 1/4-inch thick. I use a mandoline because my mandoline skills are better than my knife skills, but use your own judgment. Note that the ends will not roll as easily as the middles, so whether you keep them or throw them away is also a judgment call.

Brush the zucchini strips on both sides with a tiny bit of olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill the strips about 1 minute on each side, just until they are softened and starting to get char marks. Don't walk away; I made that mistake and incinerated a few. They go quickly. As the zucchini strips are grilled, place them on a plate to cool down.

In a small bowl, mix the ricotta with a good dollop of the pesto, then season with salt and pepper. Taste; you should definitely feel the herbs on your palate, so if it still tastes mostly like ricotta, add more pesto. Stir until well blended.

On a work surface, lay out one strip of zucchini. Spread some of the ricotta mixture over the strip, then lay on a mint leaf. Roll up the zucchini strip and secure with a toothpick. Repeat until you've used up all the zucchini strips. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Plum bread pudding

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When my husband and I bought our house in Santa Monica, I started planting fruit trees. The house came with a dwarf fig tree, an old (and finicky) avocado tree, and a Eureka lemon tree down by the back driveway. Over the years I've put in two Meyer lemons, a tangerine, an orange, two limes, and most recently a Santa Rosa plum. 

The tangerine and orange trees died. I put them in a spot that had formerly held a giant eucalyptus, and I understand the eucalyptus oils make the soil inhospitable for quite a while, no matter how much you amend. The Meyer lemons are workhorses, producing more than a hundred pounds of fruit each season. The limes, figs and avocado have their good years and bad years. But the plum tree is just starting to come into its own.

Santa Rosa plums are small, reddish-purple and highly fragrant. They're on the sour side - too sour to eat straight, unless you're Emery, my 11-year-old, who thrives on the pucker. But they're great for baking, because they turn everything pink and they have a commanding presence. I put them into this ho-hum bread pudding, added a little dusky aromatic (Chinese five-spice powder), and WOW.

Note: I used brioche in this recipe, left over from the truffled grilled cheese sandwiches from my Trufflepalooza party, but any rich white bread would work: Challah, potato bread, or Hawaiian bread all make excellent bread puddings. I keep the crusts on for a more rustic dessert, but if you prefer to remove the crusts, that's up to you.

Santa Rosa plum bread pudding
  • 1 lb Santa Rosa plums (10-12 plums; can substitute other tart plums), diced
  • 1 cup granulated sugar, divided
  • 1 loaf of  brioche, preferably a little stale, cut into cubes
  • 10 eggs
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/4 cup Grand Marnier, Triple Sec or other orange-flavored liqueur
  • 1/2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder (an Asian spice mixture; available in gourmet stores or spice shops)
  • 3 Tbsp coarse raw sugar
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the diced plums with 1/2 cup granulated sugar in a bowl. Let the plum mixture sit at room temperature for 30 minutes; the sugar will draw the juices out of the fruit and create a syrup.

Put the brioche cubes on a baking sheet. Bake the brioche briefly, just to dry it out a little. Let cool.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs, then whisk in the rest of the granulated sugar, milk, half-and-half, salt, liqueur, and five-spice powder. Add the brioche cubes and mix well, so all the bread is coated with the egg mixture. Put in the plum mixture with all the syrup that has accumulated and mix again. Let the mixture sit at least half an hour, to let the bread absorb the egg mixture and plum juices.

Spray a large baking dish, or two smaller ones, with cooking spray. Turn the bread mixture into the prepared dish(es) and sprinkle with the coarse raw sugar. Bake about an hour, or until the center of the pudding wiggles slightly when you shake the pan, and the top of the pudding is golden brown. Let cool. Serve at room temperature, with whipped cream if you like.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Santa Monica farmers market

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In which I spend my birthday auditioning for The Next Food Network Star

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Here's an interesting way to spend one's birthday: Screw up all your courage and show up at the open casting call auditions for The Next Food Network Star.

Yes, today, my 44th birthday, I got up before daybreak, put on mascara (you know what a big deal that is for me), packed some snacks, drove to the Burbank airport Marriott, and got in line to convince the lovely casting agents that I deserve a chance to compete for my own Food Network show.

The auditions were scheduled to start at 10am. I arrived at 7:30 and was number 17. We were all waiting in a big meeting room:

I expected it to be a lot more crowded, but fine - I had to go to work after the audition anyway, so fewer people ahead of me meant I'd be done sooner.

After about 20 minutes, Gaby Dalkin of What's Gaby Cooking arrived, looking completely adorable as usual:

She would make a perfect Food Network host, wouldn't she? And her food is amazing. She absolutely has the personality to have her own show. And I'm not just saying this to be nice and gracious. All I hope is that when she's as famous as Rachael Ray, she'll let me come help her prep on the set now and again.

So we waited and waited. Amy Jurist, who hosts these amazing underground dinners around Los Angeles, showed up and sat with us too. We all waited some more. And then Amanda, the casting associate who was playing Keeper of the List and Caller of the Names, called my name.

Off I went to the interview room. I sat across a table from another casting associate whose name I can't recall. She thumbed through my application, looked at me, and said (with a touch of boredom maybe? I'd probably be bored if I had to ask everyone the same questions all day), "So, why the Food Network? Why do you want to be on this show?"

Now here's the most interesting part of this whole audition thing for me. I'd been thinking hard about the answer to this question, and to the other questions on the 11-page application, for nearly a week. And at that moment I realized that even if I didn't get a callback, didn't get on the show, didn't get the chance to compete to be a Food Network host, I was still glad I'd done this. Because spending all this time working out how to articulate my pitch, my angle, my point of view - priceless, and knowledge that will help me as I move forward, wherever this food blogging thing takes me.

I'd been hoping to get a few stories into my 90-second interview: how I invited my Virgin America flight attendants over for lunch on their layover to cook Trinidadian stew chicken; how buying truffles for my first Trufflepalooza looked and felt like a drug deal. Neither of those made it. I did, however, work in that my colleagues, friends and neighbors drop grocery bags of backyard fruit at my house and on my desk, knowing I will turn them into delicious things like coconut loquat rice pudding. And that I rarely know more than a few hours in advance whether there will be four or 14 people at my dinner table. The Virgin America story probably would have worked better, but I just ran out of time.

The casting associate's second question was: "What makes you think you can compete on this show against professionally trained chefs?" I might have gotten defensive here, but in any case, I was assertive. Because I just threw a 13-course truffle dinner, with all original recipes, for 70 people. That's how. So there. Uh-huh.

She blinked, then gave me the dispassionate closing: We'll read all the applications tonight, callbacks within 24 hours, thanks for coming in. And it was done. Possibly the quickest 90 seconds of my life.

So, a little advice for anyone thinking about going to one of these open calls. Do it. You've got nothing to lose, and even if you don't get past the first round, you're bound to learn something. And, if you take a few pictures, you'll have something interesting to blog about. Good luck! And report back if you take the plunge!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Fig tart with goat cheese and rosemary

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When the figs are ready, there are so many it's hard to know where to start. I get tired of jam and fig cake; though the fig cake freezes extremely well and is a great treat in, say, January, it takes up a lot of room in the freezer, so I have to time it properly.

The figs from my secret trees (okay, not such a secret, they're behind the place where I do Pilates) are mostly brown, small and sweet, not a variety I've been able to identify. Last year when I was drowning in them, I paired them with goat cheese and fresh rosemary for this fig tart. You might really want to call it fig pie, but either way, it's fig delicious and fig unusual. I brought it to work last summer and got lots of compliments.

Note: I like this simple press-in crust made with olive oil for this fig tart, because it's easy and the olive oil flavor augments the rosemary. If you prefer a different crust method, by all means use it.

Fresh fig tart with goat cheese and rosemary

  • 2 cups chopped fresh figs, any variety
  • 3/4 cup sugar, divided
  • juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 Tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup milk or cream
  • 4 ounces fresh goat cheese
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Mix the chopped figs in a bowl with 1/2 cup of the sugar, the lemon juice, 1 Tbsp of the chopped rosemary, and the cornstarch. Let sit about 30 minutes; the sugar will draw the juices out of the figs and make a syrup.

In a pie plate or 8-by-8-inch baking pan, stir together the flour, salt, the remaining 1 Tbsp rosemary, and the remaining 1/4 cup of the sugar with a fork. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the olive oil and milk or cream with the same fork. Pour the olive oil mixture into the flour mixture and bring the dough together with the fork; do not overmix or the crust will be tough. When all the ingredients have been incorporated but the dough is still crumbly, use your fingers to pat it up the sides and into the bottom of the pan.

In a small mixing bowl, mash the goat cheese and lemon zest with a little bit of warm water, just to thin it a little. Spread the goat cheese mixture over the crust. Pour the figs on top, with their juices.

Bake the tart 45 minutes or until the crust is browned around the edges and the fig mixture is bubbling at the sides. Let cool fully before slicing and serving. The pieces may not come out neatly, but they will taste divine nonetheless.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fig salad with feta cheese, Meyer lemon and thyme

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Fig trees all over southern California are finally giving up their hard-earned fruit. I'm lucky enough to have access to two beautiful old fig trees, which live behind the Pilates studio where I sweat once a week. No one else seems interested in the figs, which I really don't understand. I had never tasted a fresh fig before I moved to California, and now I mourn all the years I went without. I can't sleep at night knowing the beautiful fruit from these trees might go to waste, so I pick five or 10 pounds each week during the season and turn them into fig jam, fig chutney, fig cake, or fig and goat cheese tart.

Last night I was invited to a girls' potluck, and after packing my 11-year-old's suitcase for his week with Grandma and two weeks at music camp, then making dinner for my husband and the kids, I didn't have time to bake the fig cake I'd planned to bring. So I improvised this fig salad with feta cheese, thyme and Meyer lemon. I thought it would be okay, fine, passable; instead it was exquisite. I love when that happens.

I didn't actually use the Pilates crop for last night's fig salad, because my wonderful friend and coworker Hilary had brought me a flat of Mecca Gold figs from Farmers Choice, a new produce market here in Santa Monica. I'll use the Pilates figs when I make this same fig salad tonight for another potluck - just to make sure the recipe is really as good as I think it is. (It is.)

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Fig salad with feta cheese, Meyer lemon and thyme
When fresh figs are in season, pair them with salty feta for this beautiful summer salad.
  • 1 pound fresh figs, ripe but not mushy
  • 3 ounces feta cheese
  • 1 Meyer lemon, zest and juice
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • salt and pepper to taste
Wash the figs well and cut off the stems. Quarter the figs and scatter them in one layer, more or less, on a large platter. If there are a few sitting on top of the others, that's fine, but don't make a huge pile or they'll crush each other.Scatter the feta cheese and the Meyer lemon zest over the figs. Sprinkle with the Meyer lemon juice and olive oil. Scatter the fresh thyme leaves over the top, then add salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 6-8 servings

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Audition advice on The Next Food Network Star from Chef DAS

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(Okay, ladies, breathe.)

Have you tuned in for this season of The Next Food Network Star? If so, you recognize the hunk fondling the onions in the photo above. It's Chef Darrell "DAS" Smith, who was nice enough to take time out of his week to meet me at the Santa Monica farmers' market for a walk and a talk.

I was introduced to DAS by a mutual friend whom I'd asked for advice about the upcoming open auditions for the next season of The Next Food Network Star. (Yes, I've decided to go: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It's next week, on my birthday, so I figure they have to be nice to me. I'll report back.) "Reach out to DAS - he's a really nice guy," said the friend. I sent him an email on a lark, and to my astonishment - isn't he a celebrity? - he replied the same day. We arranged to meet early in the morning at the market, in front of the mushroom guy.

As we walked around, fondling onions, tasting slices of dried tangerine and Valencia orange, DAS told me about his work. He teaches a culinary arts program at Beverly Hills High School, a certificate program, full-time. He started the program through the LA Unified School District's ROP (Regional Occupational Program), got the funding, put in a new kitchen at the school, designed the curriculum. He spends six periods a day, 10 months a year, with 16- to 18-year-olds. Do you know what patience that takes? What grace, what commitment? DAS is a young guy, not yet 30, but you talk to him and think, Wow, this guy's got it together. He's the only chef I've ever talked with whose dream (soon to become reality) is to open a casual restaurant where high school kids can hang out, do homework, and help in the kitchen. You have to admit, that's an unusual culinary point of view.

I did learn a few things from DAS about The Next Food Network Star auditions, which, in the spirit of paying it forward, I will share with you, just in case you decide to go to the auditions in your own city:
  • Above all, be yourself. Wear what you'd wear on a normal day. Act the way you always act. They're really looking for you, not you playing a part.
  • If you were planning to bring something delectable to wow the judges with your kitchen skills, don't bother. Auditions in the first round last about two minutes.
  • Make sure you can answer the question "Why should you have your own show on the Food Network?" in less than 30 seconds, clearly and succintly. Know your angle.
  • Remember that they're casting for characters. You can be the best cook in the world, but if you're not the character they're looking for, they won't call you back for a second look.
  • If you do get on the show, remember that it's not really about winning; only one person will. It's about what you do before the show, and what you do after the show.
  • For this show, it's all about you on camera. The food has to be good - because Bobby Flay is going to eat it - but it's not Top Chef. The most important thing is how you do on camera.
Here's the thing that struck me most about DAS: He's not the same person in real life that we saw on the show. Reality show editors have a huge job to do, getting a week's worth of footage into an hour. But in making their cuts, they're framing the story the way they choose to frame it.

Did we see DAS the high school teacher? I didn't. I wish I had, though. We saw DAS the cool black guy, because that's the character the producers needed to create their story. But I wish we'd seen him in the classroom, teaching his kids how to make the chicken roulade he served - severely undercooked, if you remember - to the judges in the first episode of the season. That's the first dish they make in his culinary arts classes every fall. After that episode aired, his students gave him shit: "Chef, we make that every year, how could you mess it up? How could you serve it raw? How?"

I guess that means if the producers of The Next Food Network Star are looking for a semi-frumpy working mom who happens to throw 13-course truffle extravaganzas for 70 in her spare time, I'm in luck.

I'll let you know what happens. Meantime, look for DAS's recipe for classic French onion soup, which is what he got all dreamy-eyed about when we stopped to fondle the onions. I'll have it up in a few days.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Zucchini frittata

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Tomato zucchini frittata

Monday, August 2, 2010

White gazpacho recipe on GrapeSmart

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A few weeks ago, Los Angeles wine writer Arianna Armstrong and her five-year-old son came over for dinner. As she made a salad and I stirred the risotto with black summer truffles, she mentioned that she wanted to write about white gazpacho to go with a piece on Spanish wines for GrapeSmart.net. Did I have a recipe?

I didn't offhand, but I'd read enough to know that white gazpacho breaks all the traditions of the gazpacho we Americans know and love. No tomatoes. Bread and almonds as thickeners. Green grapes. Grapes? Yes. White gazpacho is cold, and it has olive oil and sometimes cucumber, but that's about where the similarities end. Where tomato gazpacho has an acid bite and tastes like liquid salad, white gazpacho is mild, creamy and soft. If you didn't know what was in it, you'd never be able to tell what's in it. It's soft, creamy and mysterious.

I promised Arianna a recipe, so the next night I got out my blender. I tore up some aging crusty bread and put it in the blender, then added some water. In went some Marcona almonds, half a cucumber, a handful of green grapes, olive oil, and a splash of rosé wine. And out came...a mystery.

Read more (including Arianna's wine pairing recommendations): Erika's white gazpacho recipe on GrapeSmart.net

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Raw zucchini salad recipe

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I'm not growing zucchini this year, but I do love it and it's cheap at the farmers' market - so I've been living on this simple raw zucchini salad. It may look fancy, but the only tool you need is a simple vegetable peeler. My favorite is the Oxo Good Grips Swivel Peeler, a bargain at $7.99, in my opinion. I use it daily. We do own another one, but when Emery and I are cooking together, he grabs the Oxo and leaves me with the wannabe. Good taste, that one.

This zucchini salad is just as good the next day - different, because it's wilted a bit, but not mushy at all. I've been making it for dinner and then taking it to work in my lunchbox the next day.

Raw zucchini salad
  • 2 large or 4 small zucchini
  • 1 large hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (you won't need the whole thing)
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • juice of 1 small Meyer lemon (or 1/2 small regular lemon)
  • salt to taste
Wash the zucchini well. Using a vegetable peeler, peel off strips of the zucchini into a large bowl. If your zucchini has a seedy core, stop when you get to the middle and discard the core. Repeat with the rest of the zucchini.

Now take the hunk of cheese and peel strips of that off into the bowl. Be generous; you'll want the contrast of the salty cheese with the mild zucchini. Add the torn basil leaves.

Drizzle the olive oil and lemon juice over the zucchini salad, and add a pinch of salt. Toss and taste. You may need a little more salt than you expect. Adjust until it's perfect, then serve.