Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Confession: I am addicted to 5-minute artisan bread

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It's official: My husband and I are both addicted to the basic boule from the must-own book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Authors Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois have changed our lives.

Well, okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration. But we have been eating a lot of awfully good bread at home with very little effort.

The "aha" principle is this: Gluten, which gives good bread its lovely chewy texture, develops with either agitation or time. Knead the dough, develop gluten. Alternatively, mix up a thick soup of water, yeast, salt and flour, let it sit in the refrigerator for a few days (or weeks), and what do you get? Gluten. Plus that great sourdough flavor. Oh, and it takes about five minutes to mix up the dough, five minutes to shape a loaf, and a few "Bob's your uncle"s later, you've got bread.

I do depart from their recipe in a few ways. First, I let my loaf rest on the counter after shaping for a good long time - four or five hours, sometimes. And second, when I heat the oven, I stick my cast-iron Dutch oven in there, let it get good and hot, and then bake the loaf right in the iron pot. I bake it covered for half an hour to trap the moisture, then remove the cover for the last 15 minutes to let the loaf brown.

Trust me: Anyone can make this bread. The only part that takes practice is shaping the loaves before baking, and it's just not that hard.

So, in case I wasn't clear enough at the beginning, buy this book. You will not be sorry.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A chef who's welcome to take me home anytime: Curtis Stone

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I spent much of this weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, hanging around the culinary stage, where some pretty spectacular cookbook authors were cooking and signing books. The whole two-day extravaganza was great, but the highlight for me was (heart thumps loudly) the Australian surfer boy Curtis Stone, who was promoting his new book Relaxed Cooking with Curtis Stone: Recipes to Put You in my Favorite Mood.

Now usually I'm not a swooner. I don't get tongue-tied in front of celebrities. I act like a normal person. Usually. Yesterday I was a babbling idiot. People magazine didn't name him one of their sexiest people of the year for nothing. Sorry, husband, you know I love you. This guy was just magnetic. There's a reason he's on television.

So, the top 10 reasons Curtis Stone made me swoon yesterday:

10. He brought his dad up on stage (spent the entire time bossing him around, but even so).

9. He made cocktails and then drank them in front of the crowd (one of them was this Chocolate Mint Martini).

8. When the mussels he was planning to use turned up green, he pilfered ingredients from the next chef on the schedule. With the pilfered ingredients, he created this dish the crowd dubbed "Pilfered Pasta":

7. He cooked in flip-flops ("Australian safety shoes," he called them).

6. The way he says "couscous." Which, as he was making this dish, he said many times.

5. He ran through the aisles with a hot pan so we could smell the pasta sauce. When I commented to the grandma sitting next to me that the pasta sauce smelled great, she said "Sauce? What sauce? I was looking at the rump roast....Oh, wait. He's not cooking that." (Proving that women of all ages were swooning.)

4. He burned the pine nuts for the couscous dish.

3. The charming story he told about how he decided to come to America to do "Take Home Chef" (I can't quote him, but basically, he said, what's not to like about a show where you go to the grocery store, pick up a chick, and take her home?).

2. The next charming story about what his dad said when he told him about "Take Home Chef" ("You're an idiot, son. You're going to take these ladies home and surprise their husbands. Do you know how many guns there are in America?")

1. He was incredibly nice to my kid, a 10-year-old gourmand and budding chef. Gave him a tour of the backstage prep tent, walked him through all the ingredients, and was impressed that he knew what char siu sauce was.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The weekend of the lemon: Scones, squares and muffins

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The citrus harvest must have been good this year in southern California, because lemons are raining down upon me from all corners. This week I got a sackful of beautiful Meyer lemons from my friend Erin's boyfriend's mother's tree. They were soft and ready to use, so I juiced most of them and started baking.

Before the baking, actually, I put up two jars of Moroccan preserved lemons (that's the jar behind the plate in the photo). This couldn't be easier:
  1. You quarter the lemons almost all the way down, leaving the stem end intact.
  2. Pour some salt inside each lemons.
  3. Stuff them in a jar, really packing them down so they release their juice.
  4. Top off the jar with more salt and lemon juice, and put on the top.
  5. Leave them on the counter for a week, shaking them up once or twice a day.
  6. Stick them in the refrigerator. After a month, they're ready to use.
Preserved lemons appear in many Moroccan dishes and seem to be one of the up-and-coming ingredients among Los Angeles chefs. The sun-dried tomato of the new millenium? I think it's possible. Generally the recipes tell you to scrape out and discard the flesh and use only the peel, finely diced. I like the flesh too. Up to you.

After that, I made lemon bars from the recipe I posted here a few months ago. This time I added lemon zest to both the dough and the custard, which gave the bars a very nice boost. I also increased the lemon juice, because I thought they were too sweet the first time. Again, up to you.

Still not ready to leave the kitchen, I turned to a recipe for lemon muffins with dried blueberries I'd been eyeing, from a great blog called Erin Cooks. I didn't have the Greek yogurt she raves about, so I substituted regular lowfat plain yogurt. They're delicious.

My last lemon project for the day: the Meyer lemon scones from Baking Bites, one of my favorite dessert blogs. The only changes I made to this recipe were to use zest from normal lemons (I didn't have the patience to zest the Meyer lemons before I juiced them), and to cut the pieces smaller, so the baking time was slightly shorter. These are amazing - crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, not too sweet, just perfect. They're almost like lemon-flavored biscuits, much lighter than many scones I've had.

If anyone from my office is reading this: Don't worry. I've got some of everything packed up to take to work.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Recipe: Michael's "delicious sauce"

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I must be in the mood for condiments this month, because after my last post on salad dressing, now I'm bringing you my husband's versatile and elegant "delicious sauce."

Michael claims that he can't cook well in our kitchen because it's clearly my territory. I'll admit that I'm not the easiest person with whom to share a kitchen: I like things the way I like them. So he hasn't cooked much over the 15-plus years we've been living in the same house. But every time we steam artichokes, he mixes up this lovely spiked mayonnaise.

He's been making this sauce since he was in grade school, when a friend's mom mixed oil and vinegar with store-bought mayonnaise and he brought the idea home. The young Michael made it, fed it to his family, and christened it. "Delicious sauce" has been in his life ever since.

"The nice thing about delicious sauce," said my husband snarkily as I was making notes for this post, "is that it's made entirely from non-perishable ingredients, and thus can be made even when you haven't harvested from your herb garden, attended a farmers market, or otherwise engaged in foodie behavior."


Michael points out that this recipe, like him, is very Hungarian: very few actual measurements. Oh, and it's much better on the second day.

Michael's "delicious sauce"
enough for 3-4 artichokes, and also good on sandwiches
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • a good dollop of olive oil
  • a splash of red wine vinegar ("Not too much!" cautions the creator)
  • salt and pepper
  • a few drops of Tabasco
  • a few shakes of garlic powder
In a small bowl, mix the mayonnaise and olive oil until the mixture is smooth. Add the rest, taste, adjust, taste, adjust, etc. It's not a science. It's an art.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Recipe: My classic French-inspired vinaigrette

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I have to tell you, there's not a whole a lot of exciting cooking going on in my kitchen right now. We still have lots of Passover leftovers, of which we are quickly becoming tired. The chicken is almost gone. The brisket is destined for a beef-barley soup, I think. I might make breakfast buns filled with the last of the haroset, if I can get past my guilt (we don't keep Passover for more than a day or two, but still, to decide actively to make something luscious and leavened - it might be too much for me).

I started my new job at this week, and while I'm really enjoying it, I had very little time to cook other than what I had to do for the seders. And even less time to write about cooking. So here it is, the weekend, lots of time for both cooking and blogging, and I realized that nothing I made for dinner was worth photographing. A glitch in my planning.

And then I saw my ever-present jar of vinaigrette and realized I hadn't shared this simple joy with you yet. Everyone has his or her own way with salad dressing, and mine has carried me through many dishes: green salads, of course, but I also use this dressing on cooked vegetables (dress them when warm so they absorb the flavor better), to marinate chicken, and even sometimes on its own as a dip.

Every French head of household makes a dressing quite similar to this. Mix it up in an old jar, keep it in the refrigerator, and you'll never go back to the bottled stuff. All these measurements are approximate; it's really about the proportions. I like about one part acid to three parts oil, but use your own palate as a guide.

Classic French-inspired vinaigrette
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
  • juice of 3 lemons
  • 1 tsp grated lemon zest (optional)
  • 2 Tbsp light-colored vinegar (I prefer champagne, but white wine vinegar is fine too)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups good olive oil
Put all ingredients in a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid. Close the jar and shake well. Taste and adjust; does it need more salt? more acid? a little more oil? You can't ruin it, so don't be afraid to play with the proportions.

This dressing will keep for at least a month in the refrigerator. Let it warm up before you use it, as the oil will congeal when it's cold.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Lots of unusual Passover recipes

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I'm starting my seder preparations, doing as much in advance as I can. We will be 10 people on Wednesday and 20 people on Thursday, so there's lots to do. I've already made the matzo kugels. Tonight I think I'll do the tzimmes. Marinated radishes and cucumbers, lemon chicken, matzo balls...I think all of that has to wait until tomorrow night.

Meantime, I've collected a slew of Passover recipes, some of my own, a few from various L.A. chefs, and a lot from the very generous Alain Cohen, owner of Got Kosher? in Beverly Hills (a store I cannot wait to visit, based on these recipes). You'll love them. If you make any of them for your seder, come back and post a comment - let us know how it turned out!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Greetings from Ixtapa, Mexico

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Hello all - greetings from Ixtapa, where we are in the midst of a lovely family vacation at Club Med. I have just a few minutes between sipping pina coladas at the pool, bobbing in the Pacific and Zumba class. (If you've never tried Zumba, a sort of aerobics thing set to Latin music, I recommend it.)

The food here at Club Med Ixtapa is really remarkable for an all-inclusive Mexican resort. At each meal there are Mexican, French-inspired and other dishes, all really nicely done. The highlights include:
  • handmade corn tortillas at every meal
  • chorizo or machaca and eggs at breakfast
  • a decent cheese selection (oh, those French)
  • adorable and tasty little pastries, many made with bananas
  • starfruit juice, which tastes like a pale, weak pineapple juice, but with subtle floral overtones
  • grilled grouper and tilapia
  • salmon and tuna sashimi, cut in front of you right off the huge whole fish
  • green and red chilaquiles every morning
  • an interesting sweet oatmeal, which I think is whole oats cooked in sweetened condensed milk
The other remarkable thing: We are all drinking the water and eating the salads. I've never done this in Mexico before, but when I asked the head of the property whether it was really as safe as they said, he explained that at a family resort like this, where every week there are hundreds of very small children and babies, they make sure to take extra precautions to ensure the safety of the food and water supply. So far the only one who's gotten even a little ill is my mom, who in fact has refused all salads. Go figure.

I'll try to get photos of some of the best edibles before I leave.