Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Trufflepalooza 2012: The menu

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A happy Erika in her kitchen during Trufflepalooza 2012 (photo: B&G Photography)

Trufflepalooza 2012 has come and gone. It was glorious, and crowded, and a heck of a lot of work. And one of my favorite days of the year. Don't I look joyful in this picture? I really had a good time pushing out 20 different truffle-laced dishes for 150 people.

(Wondering what that black thing is on my right ear? It's my Bluetooth headset - I was afraid I wouldn't hear the phone if people got lost and called for directions. Practical, not so photogenic.)

I kept the menu under wraps before the party, but I'm glad to share it with you now. I'll be posting some of these recipes in the weeks to come, so stay tuned.

Trufflepalooza 2012: The menu

On the table
Round 1
Round 2
Round 3

I had a lot of help in the kitchen during the party and in the days before. I wouldn't have been able to feed all those people without my friends and family: Amy, Tony, Andrew, Cathy, Jeff, Jennifer, Kim, Amanda, Patricia, Dorothy, Emery, Weston, my mom Sue, my husband Michael. If you belong on this list and I left you off, let me know and please forgive my early-onset senility.

Some amazing companies donated important ingredients for Trufflepalooza 2012. Thanks to Melissa's Produce (potatoes and shallots), California Avocados Direct (avocados, clearly), Jade Asian Greens (pea sprouts). And a very special thanks to Sabatino Tartufi, which provided the fresh truffles, truffle oil, truffle vinegar, truffle honey, and truffle salt. I've tried a lot of truffle products and I love theirs most of all.

Now the countdown begins: Only 361 days until Trufflepalooza 2013....

Friday, July 27, 2012

Trufflepalooza in the Los Angeles Times

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Preparations for Trufflepalooza 2012 are well under way. Every plate I own is on the table, wiped clean, neatly stacked. Thanks to Sabatino Tartufi, my entire refrigerator smells like truffles. And I've spent the last 24 hours in the kitchen. I'm happy as a clam.

And then, just now, a little happier, when I saw the Los Angeles Times feature on Trufflepalooza that will be out in tomorrow's food section. Rene Lynch really captured the spirit of Trufflepalooza: not some fussy gourmet fest, but an annual tradition that's about making and eating good food with friends. Also, Anne Cusack managed to get a cute photo of me - not the easiest feat, even for a pro.

If you're here because you read the article, welcome! Some of the recipes mentioned in the article are on this blog. Click below to get to them.
You might also be interested in my entertaining tips for large parties - cooking for 100 people requires a lot of planning, and thankfully I've learned a few things over the years.

Want to get all the recipes I share from my kitchen - healthy family fare, mostly, with a few decadent desserts thrown in - delivered to your email? Click the Subscribe button at the top right.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Apricot yogurt cake

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I thought apricot season was over. But then, last week, I found the biggest, plumpest, juiciest, sweetest apricots at Bob's Market, the small family-owned grocery store in my neighborhood. Jim Jaffe, the longtime produce manager at Bob's, somehow manages to dig up delicious fruit, often very local, when it's least expected. I don't know how he does it, but I'm glad he does.

I ate most of Jim's apricots au naturel. But I saved a few for this simple cake. It's another variation on the traditional French yogurt cake, my go-to base recipe that I've adorned with everything from pears to rhubarb to Nutella. This time I macerated the apricots in a little sugar ahead of time, then added the apricot syrup that collected in the bowl to the batter. The result: a moist, fruity cake to top off breakfast, lunch or dinner.

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Apricot yogurt cake
If you can't find fresh apricots, substitute fresh plums or pluots. Canned apricots will work in a pinch, though you might need to cut down the sugar in the recipe a bit.
  • 3/4 pound fresh apricots, pitted and cut into large chunks
  • 1 cup granulated sugar, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/3 cup grapeseed or canola oil
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp raw sugar (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9x13 baking dish, or one of similar size, with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.Combine the apricots and 1/4 cup granulated sugar in a bowl. Let sit 15 minutes. The sugar will start to draw out the liquid in the fruit, making a syrup.In another large bowl, whisk together the remaining 3/4 cup sugar, eggs, yogurt, and oil until smooth. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. (I always put the baking powder and baking soda through a small strainer, as I once had the unpleasant experience of biting into a chunk of baking soda in a muffin. If you're a risk-taker, feel free to omit this step, but don't say I didn't warn you.) Whisk the batter until all the ingredients are well combined. Add the extracts and most of the liquid that's collected in the bowl of apricots; whisk again to combine.Turn half the batter into the prepared pan, then scatter over half the apricots. Repeat with the remaining batter and apricots. Sprinkle the raw sugar over the top if you're using it. Bake about 40 minutes or until the cake is set and a toothpick comes out moist but not covered in batter. Cool at least 30 minutes in the pan.Serve warm or at room temperature.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 8 servings

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to cook for 100 people

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Cooking for a crowd requires advance planning and helping hands (photo: Robyn Davis)

Every summer I throw a party called Trufflepalooza. It's just what it sounds like - many different dishes, each one loaded with Italian black summer truffles (even the desserts). This year I'm planning 17 different dishes for more than 100 people. It's a zoo. It's a lot of work. And I love it.

People's eyes get big when I tell them that I make food for 100 people in my home kitchen. It's time-consuming, but it's doable. I've learned a few things over the years and I'm happy to share what's worked for me. These tips will help you whether you're throwing a big party like mine or a smaller party like the ones saner people have. The secrets: planning, accepting help, and only obsessing over the things that really require obsessing.

Fair warning - it's a long list.

Say yes to helping hands (photo: Robyn Davis)

How to cook for 100 people - Erika's tips

  1. If you're making something new, test the recipe ahead of time. You need to know how long each step will take, which parts (if any) you can do ahead, where to get the ingredients, and whether there are any obvious shortcuts. I start testing recipes for Trufflepalooza at least six weeks in advance.
  2. Keep the decorations simple. You can't do food for 100 and Martha Stewart decorations, or at least I can't. I get large amounts of one kind of flower, usually something white and fluffy, and make many small bouquets in identical containers, often canning jars. That's as Martha as I get.
  3. Pad the menu with a few easy dishes. If you're doing a complicated main dish, make the sides no-brainers like oven-roasted vegetables, a beautiful salad, or a rice pilaf. If you're making fussy appetizers, roast some fish for your entree and make dessert ice cream sandwiches with store-bought ice cream and bakery cookies.
  4. Use all your appliances. You won't be able to fit everything in the oven, and you only have so many burners on the stove. Make sure your recipes are divided between things that get baked or roasted (oven); things that get sauteed, boiled or steamed (stove); things that just need reheating (microwave); and cold or room temperature dishes (none of the above). And don't forget about your outside grill if you have one. My husband recently used ours as a warming oven when his book group came over and he discovered that our bottom oven was broken.
  5. Choose recipes that can be made ahead, in full or in part. I end up making or prepping the food for Trufflepalooza over three or four days. Even if the final dish can't be assembled until the last minute, I make all the components ahead of time. For my radish and truffle butter tartines, for example, I slice the radishes up to two days ahead and store them in a container with ice water in the refrigerator. I make the truffle butter, which goes into several Trufflepalooza recipes each year, three days ahead. I buy the baguettes the morning of the party, slice them, and store the slices in zip-top bags until we're ready to assemble.
  6. The buffet is your friend. I can't do a seated dinner for more than 20 people without a significant amount of paid help. Buffet is the way to go. Line up the serving dishes and hand out plates. Unless your party guests are invalids or very young children, they are capable of serving themselves.
  7. Make a prep schedule. Break down each dish into its component tasks and spread them out over a few days. My party is on Saturday. My prep schedule starts Wednesday night and contains a detailed list of tasks for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For instance, one of the dishes I'm serving again this year is truffled pork and shrimp shu mai dumplings. The dumplings need to be assembled and steamed the day of the party, but I'll make the filling on Thursday. The creamy mushroom soup with truffles can be made a day or two ahead, too. It's all on the schedule.
  8. When friends ask if they can help, say yes. It's fun to cook with your friends, remember? Invite people over the day before the party to help with the prep. When they show up at the party and say "What can I do?" I find them a job. I have a big collection of aprons, which always comes in handy when guests volunteer to chop or stir.
  9. Make detailed shopping lists at least a week in advance. Go over each dish; think not only about the main ingredients, but about pantry staples and serving needs. Put the list away, then go through each dish again a few hours later - I always miss something the first time around. Trufflepalooza requires shopping at seven different stores, so I really need to plan out when I'm going where. Did I mention I have a full-time day job? Fitting in the shopping is no trivial matter for me.
  10. Stock up on staples. I'm talking about aluminum foil, plastic wrap, zip-top bags in several sizes, butter, olive oil, eggs, mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, peppercorns, chicken stock. I use all these things without thinking, and I definitely don't want to run out the day of the party. I also buy a bunch of inexpensive plastic containers so I can send people home with leftovers.
  11. Make the important stuff, buy the less important stuff. I am biting the bullet and making 300 5-inch corn tortillas for the truffled tacos I'm serving this year. It's time-consuming and tedious, but homemade tortillas make a big difference in the finished dish. On the other hand, I'm buying good-quality ricotta cheese for the truffled leek canapes - I could make my own, but in that context store-bought will work fine. I admit to being a little crazy in this department. I realize that most people would buy the tortillas.
  12. Play great music while you prep. Loud, happy music that makes you wiggle and dance, puts a smile on your face, and gets you singing at the top of your lungs. 
  13. Avoid menu creep, aka "while we're at it" syndrome. My husband suggested adding this one right after I said "Hey, if Erin's figs are ripe, maybe I'll do those roasted figs with goat cheese and truffle honey again!" Be more disciplined than I am. Set your menu and only deviate if you can't get an important ingredient or if you find something amazing at the farmers' market.
  14. Ready the house a day early. If you need to move furniture, bring up folding chairs from the garage, or wipe down extra tables, do it the day before. While you're at it, get down the good dishes and wine glasses and make sure they're clean. I always have to wash mine when they come out of the cabinet.
  15. Keep the drinks simple. For Trufflepalooza we serve one red wine, one white wine, sparkling water and flat water. That's it. It's partly because I'm avoiding drinks that compete with the truffles. But it's also because I'd much rather buy a lot of bottles of one thing than a few bottles of a lot of things. I am not a big drinker, so your mileage may vary on this one.
  16. Hire someone to wash dishes. It's the best money you'll ever spend. If you can't afford to pay someone, barter dishwashing services for childcare, dinner delivery or something else you're good at.
  17. But don't hire servers. When guests ask me if there's anything they can do, I put a tray of hors d'oeuvres in their hands and tell them to go make friends. Everyone wants to talk to the person with the food. This is particularly useful for shy people who are uncomfortable striking up conversations with strangers. With a tray in their hands, they have a purpose. Older kids and teenagers also like serving.
  18. During the party, remember to take care of yourself. Drink lots of water and wear very comfortable shoes. I don't drink wine until all the food has been sent out of the kitchen. I'm too afraid I'll burn myself or drop something. (Remind me to tell you the story of the Thanksgiving pumpkin-pie-turned-souffle sometime.)
  19. Befriend neighbors with extra refrigerators. I'm lucky - all our neighbors are amazing people. But it's a huge bonus that my next-door neighbor saves me a few shelves in her extra refrigerator every time I throw this party. She also happens to have a great collection of trays and bowls with which she's very generous.
  20. Choose an amazing husband, wife or partner. My husband does a huge amount of work for this party every year, including moving furniture, buying wine, reminding me whom I forgot to invite, cooking the steak, setting up folding tables and chairs, removing the laundry from the bathroom, and listening to me obsess about my prep schedule and shopping list. He also gives first-class shoulder and foot massages. I could never throw a party like this without him. I hope he knows how grateful I am...maybe I'll go remind him now.
How do you keep yourself organized when you throw a big party? Add your tips in the comments!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Macaroni and cheese with kale

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I have a theory about kale: Add it to any recipe and your recipe automatically qualifies as health food.

Even macaroni and cheese.

I made an unexpected discovery the day I added shredded sauteed kale to a pan of gooey, creamy macaroni and cheese: I actually liked the mac and cheese more with kale in it.

It might be because I felt somewhat more virtuous about eating it. It did taste awfully good, though. I'm going through a "where have you been all my life?" phase with kale. It's seeing a lot of play in my kitchen lately.

What do you put in your macaroni and cheese? ('cause I know you can't just play it straight...)

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Macaroni and cheese with kale
Add kale to any dish and it automatically qualifies as health food - right? Besides, shredded kale actually makes macaroni and cheese tastier.
  • 1 bunch Tuscan kale (also called dinosaur kale)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 pound whole wheat macaroni, penne or ziti
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 3 Tbsp flour
  • 3 cups milk (whole, lowfat or fat-free)
  • 4 cups white cheddar cheese, shredded (or substitute gruyere, fontina or any combination of cheese you prefer)
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs or panko breadcrumbs
Strip the kale leaves from their stems and cut the kale leaves into very fine ribbons. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the kale. Saute the kale about 6-8 minutes or until significantly wilted. Set aside.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Fill a large pot with water, add the salt, and bring to a boil. Add the pasta and cook 2 minutes less than the package directions. You want the pasta very al dente because it will continue to cook in the oven. Drain the pasta and put it into a large mixing bowl. While you're cooking the pasta, drop the butter into a medium saucepan. When the butter is melted, add the flour and whisk together to make a roux. Cook the butter-flour mixture about 1 minute to get rid of the raw flour taste, then slowly start adding the milk, whisking constantly. Bring the milk mixture to a simmer, making sure there are no lumps (the more you whisk, the fewer lumps you'll have). Add the shredded cheese and whisk until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and mix well. Add the kale and a generous amount of pepper and stir again. Spray a large baking pan with cooking spray (9x13 works, or any casserole dish that looks to be the right size). Turn the pasta mixture into the baking dish and sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the top.Bake the macaroni and cheese about 40 minutes, until the casserole is bubbly and the breadcrumbs are nicely browned. Serve immediately.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 8-10 servings

Friday, July 13, 2012

Thanks, Babble.com, for naming me one of your 2012 Top Mom Food Bloggers

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Good news: I've been lucky enough to make Babble.com's list of its 100 Top Mom Food Blogs for 2012. It's an amazing list of women and I'm humbled and grateful to be on it.

Thanks to the Babble.com editors for the nod, but more importantly to all of you out there reading this. I cook because my family gets hungry, but I write because you guys read my words. Thanks for the inspiration.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Olive bread

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A loaf of La Brea Bakery olive bread is a big treat for my husband. Olive bread and good butter make him one happy man.

However, the last time we bought a loaf of said olive bread, it set us back about $8. I'm not cheap, but I can't afford to buy olive bread as often as Michael would prefer to eat it.

So I dusted off my bread-making skills and set out to bake a loaf of olive bread that I can afford. I used pitted Kalamata olives from Costco and a combination of all-purpose and white whole wheat flours. My olive bread isn't quite as good as La Brea Bakery's, but it will tide us over when the grocery budget is stretched.

Don't be scared of baking yeast bread. It's easy once you've done it a few times. I've had many a frustrating failure with sourdough, but yeast bread is a snap. I make mine in a stand mixer with the dough hook, but you'll developed fabulous biceps if you do it by hand.

Notes: This recipe calls for letting the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator, or up to 24 hours. The longer and slower the rise, the better the flavor. Rush the process at your own peril. Also, I get the best results baking my bread in the oven inside a cast iron Dutch oven; if you don't have one, try a heavy, ovenproof casserole dish or pot with a lid.

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Olive bread
A hearty bread with whole wheat flour and kalamata olives.
  • 2 cups Kalamata olives, drained and pitted
  • 1 tsp dry yeast (instant or regular active)
  • pinch of granulated sugar
  • 2 cups white whole wheat flour
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • about 1 1/4 cups warm water, or more to achieve proper texture
Chop the olives roughly, either using a large knife on a cutting board or by pulsing in a food processor. Set chopped olives aside.Stand mixer instructions: Add the yeast, sugar and a few tablespoons of warm water to the stand mixer's bowl and swish them around to combine. Let stand 5-10 minutes, until the yeast has bloomed. Add the flours, salt and olives, and put the bowl on the stand mixer with the dough hook. Start the machine on its lowest setting. Add the water a bit at a time. When the dough comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, stop adding water. Stop the mixer and feel the dough; it should feel sticky, even a little wet (dry dough makes dry bread). Turn the mixer back on and let it run about 5 minutes to knead the dough. Hand-mixing instructions: In a large bowl, add the yeast, sugar and a few tablespoons of warm water. Stir to dissolve the yeast and let sit 5-10 minutes, until the yeast has bloomed. Add the flours, salt and olives, then add the warm water a bit at a time, pouring with one hand and mixing with the other hand. When the dough comes together into a shaggy mess, turn it out onto the counter and start kneading, adding more water a spoonful at a time if the dough feels dry, or more all-purpose flour a spoonful at a time if the dough feels too wet. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, folding the dough over on itself, turning a quarter-turn, and repeating, until the dough feels smoother and somewhat more cohesive. It doesn't have to be baby-smooth.Spray the inside of a large zip-top bag with nonstick cooking spray. Put the dough inside the bag, press out the extra air, and zip the bag closed. Place the bag in the refrigerator overnight or as long as 24 hours. You'll want to check it a few times and release the gas that's built up in the bag, or you might end up with a little explosion.After the dough has risen in the refrigerator (and it won't rise much, so don't be alarmed), it's time to form the loaf. Set a piece of parchment paper on the counter and dust it generously with flour, then set it aside. Sprinkle a little more flour directly on the counter and turn the dough out of the bag onto the counter. You don't want to deflate it completely - just pull the edges down and under the center to form a ball, pinching the edges together underneath. Put the ball of dough on the floured parchment paper, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit on the counter about two hours. It will rise as it comes to room temperature, but not too much.If you have a cast iron Dutch oven or deep covered pot that can go in the oven, you'll want to bake your bread in that. Put the empty, covered pot into the oven and turn the heat to 450 degrees. Let the oven get good and hot. When it's ready, take the pot out of the oven, remove the lid, and gently place the unbaked loaf with the parchment paper in the pot. Replace the lid, put the pot back in the oven, and let bake 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the lid and continue to bake the loaf another 20 minutes.Take the pot out of the oven, remove the loaf from the pot, carefully peel the parchment paper off the bread, and let the olive bread cool on a rack at least 30 minutes before slicing. Serve with plenty of good butter.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 1 large loaf

Friday, July 6, 2012

Fruit smoothie sorbet

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From time to time I get all excited about smoothies. I put together all this fantastic fruit, sometimes vegetables too, I blend it up, I pour it into a glass, and I stick a straw in it.

And then I remember that I just don't like smoothies all that much.

It's a consistency thing. I like my food to have texture. I like to chew.

So what's a girl to do with leftover smoothie? Well, if she's the girl who bought herself an ice cream maker for Mother's Day, she puts the leftover smoothie in the ice cream maker and turns it into sorbet. Yep - it works. No added sugar, no added water, nothing. Put your leftover smoothie in the ice cream maker and see what happens.

The batch above included cherries, apricots, strawberries, cucumber, lettuce and lime juice. Use whatever you like. The thicker your smoothie, the creamier your sorbet will turn out. If you add avocado or yogurt you might even get a texture closer to ice cream. Experiment!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Zucchini frittata with herbs and feta

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When the zucchini plants take over the summer garden, cooks must get creative.

If you're looking for a zucchini recipe that uses up a lot of zucchini all at once, this is it. It's also a light lunch, a delicious breakfast, a quick dinner, and a healthy snack.

If you don't like zucchini (hello, husband), you will not like this. If you like zucchini, it will become your new best friend.

Note: This is not so different from a traditional Persian kuku, a vegetable-heavy omelette or frittata. Zucchini is just one possible option for kuku; there are many other variations using eggplant, spinach and green herbs.

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Zucchini frittata with herbs and feta
This omelette with zucchini and green herbs is a great way to use up an abundance of garden zucchini. Serve it with very cold white wine for a refreshing summer lunch.
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup mixed fresh herbs, chopped finely (basil, parsley, mint, chives, cilantro, dill, etc.)
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups zucchini, shredded or grated
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Preheat the broiler. Put a large ovenproof nonstick skillet on the stove over medium heat.Crack the eggs into a medium-sized bowl and beat with a fork. Add the chopped herbs, a good pinch of salt, and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper.Add the olive oil to the skillet and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the zucchini and cook about 5 minutes, until the zucchini is wilted and most of the water has evaporated. Add the egg mixture and cook about 5 minutes more, lifting up the edges of the frittata with a spatula and tilting the pan to let the uncooked egg run underneath.When the frittata is mostly set but still wet on top, scatter the feta cheese over the top of the frittata and stick the pan under the broiler. Check after 2 minutes; it will probably take 3 minutes for the top of the frittata to brown and for the cheese to melt. Remove the pan from the oven and slide the frittata out onto a cutting board. You may need to slide the spatula under the bottom of the frittata to loosen it from the pan before turning it out.Let the frittata rest at least 10 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 4-6 servings