Friday, May 29, 2009

Recipe: Creamy avocado-cucumber soup

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This is a soup of many friends.

First, there is Muriel. I tasted this soup at a party she threw for her husband, a wonderful artist who was showing some detailed geometric ink drawings. The soup tasted the way I imagine a cloud tastes: cool, soft, round and full in the mouth. She assured me, in the way only a French woman can, that it was nothing special, easy to put together. The texture was so amazing that I wondered if she had lightened it with whipped cream. When I had the soup the second time, at her 40th birthday party, I asked again, and this time she sent over the recipe she uses. It seems too good to be true, but, in fact, it's quite easy.

Next friends: Rachel and Eric, who own an avocado ranch near Santa Barbara. We visited last weekend and came home with a big bag of heavy Fuertes, a variety that's harder to find than the common Hass, but worth the hunt for its creamy yellow flesh. Tired of guacamole, I thought of this soup.

And finally, Lauren, a beautiful photographer, who kept me company in the kitchen last weekend and took the photo above as her toddler Isabella rearranged the furniture. Lauren likes to cook but is more timid in the kitchen than her skills warrant. I often end up doing the cooking instead of teaching her, but it's such a pleasure cooking for her, and she is such a grateful and effusive guest, that I can't help myself. After she shot the picture above, she ate the soup and enjoyed it. Which is all the cook really wants.

Creamy avocado-cucumber soup (makes about 8 servings)
  • Flesh of 4 large avocados (if you happen to find Fuertes, use them; if not, Hass are fine)
  • 2 English cucumbers, with skin, cut into chunks
  • 1 clove garlic
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • salt to taste
Put all the ingredients in a blender - not a food processor, because it won't achieve the right texture. You need a blender, and come to think of it, you might have to make the soup in batches, depending on the size of your blender.

Anyway, whizz the mixture up for a good long time. Open the blender. If it's too thick to qualify as soup, add some water and whizz again. Chill in the refrigerator at least a couple of hours before serving. Garnish with chopped herbs, a perfect sprig of parsley (as in the photo), or some diced cucumber and/or avocado.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Thinking about limoncello recipes

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Look what my lovely husband just bought for me! It's at home in our freezer, just waiting for me. Ventura Limoncello, made right here in southern California, from Ventura county lemons, very much like the lemons that are growing in my yard at this very moment, I'm sure.

I'm sure drinking it will be nice. But what about cooking with it? I'm thinking about lemon risotto, pasta with lemon and asparagus, a lemon cake glazed with a limoncello syrup....

But enough about me. What would you do with it? I want to hear all ideas please....

Update on Monday May 25: This stuff tastes great mixed with club soda, but I think it does equally well in the limoncello cake I just wrote about on my LA Cooking Examiner page. Try it - the recipe is really easy - and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Today it's In Erika's Garden, not Kitchen

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My whole family pitched in last weekend to plant our summer vegetable garden. Tonight after dinner my younger son and I checked on it and took some photos. Now you too can dream of homegrown meals to come!

This first photo is a tiny baby fig, just getting started on our dwarf fig tree. We don't know what variety it is, but the figs are huge purple specimens and ripen around Labor Day:

Next we have some teeny tiny baby Key limes...

...and here is a Bearss lime-to-be (Bearss limes are the normal green ones, which turn yellowish when they're really ripe):

This is the first year we're trying to grow soybeans. They climb like, well, beans! so we put a cage in the middle to support them:

This is a bed with 18 lettuce plants (speckled, green leaf and red leaf, I think). Lettuce actually does better in southern California in the winter, but I didn't get to plant a winter garden this year, and this bed where I put the lettuce only gets a half-day of sun, so I think they'll be okay for a while:

These are green beans, which always do well. We planted some plants, and around them we put in seeds, to extend the harvest (but the seeds haven't come up yet).

This is my rangy herb garden. It needs a little TLC.

The star jasmine is blooming now, and the fragrance is incredible. Unfortunately, it's not great for my allergies, so I have to hold my breath when I'm near it. Everyone else loves it though.

The garden beds get a little too much shade, so this year I bought some pots and put them on the patio where they'll get more sun. This means I have to water them by hand instead of letting the sprinklers do the work, but that's okay.

Because we live in Santa Monica's "fog belt," our tomatoes and zucchini often get powdery mildew or root rot before they get really productive. This year I'm trying both in pots. We'll see what happens.

Hope you liked this garden tour! I'll take some more photos when things have started to take off. Which they'll do as long as I remember to feed and water. Feed and water. Feed and water. It's my new mantra.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Recipe: Sparkling Meyer lemonade with honey

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One thing that continually amazes this transplanted New Yorker about southern California is that food grows on trees. I mean this very literally: Almost every backyard in Los Angeles has some kind of fruit tree, and often more than one. The idea that most people can go outside and pick something off a tree that can go on the dinner table - it's astounding.

We bought our house in Santa Monica 12 years ago. It was a stretch, and I was nervous and resistant, but my husband pushed me, and I will be grateful forever for his wisdom and impeccable timing of the real estate market. The house came with a big old avocado tree, a scraggly Eureka lemon tree, and a dwarf fig tree. Backyard fruit! I couldn't have been more thrilled.

But soon those weren't enough. I wanted more food dropping in my lap once a year. So I started planting, and kept planting, and now we have what seems like almost an orchard. In addition to the original three trees, we have two Meyer lemon trees, a Key lime tree, a kumquat that has yet to be coaxed into bearing fruit, a Santa Rosa plum, and a dwarf five-citrus marvel in a pot on the patio (branches of Eureka lemon, Meyer lemon, lime, orange and tangerine, all grafted onto one root stock).

Truth be told, none of the fruit trees gives too generously. Except the one Meyer lemon we planted right after we moved in and before our huge two-year construction project. Maybe it got toughened in its youth by the chaos of the construction around it - it was, in fact, the only plant near the house to survive the ordeal - but it gives generously every year, and I do nothing for the bounty. Maybe I remember to feed it once every few years. Maybe not. No matter. It just likes us.

I'm drowning in lemons this time of year (thus the lemon bars, lemon-poppy seed muffins, lemon-blueberry muffins, lemon scones, and preserved lemons that I've turned out recently), and it's important to pick the fruit so the tree has the energy to flower and set fruit for next year, so this afternoon we had lemonade. My kids tell me I got the proportions perfect. You be the judge.

Erika's perfect sparkling Meyer lemonade with honey
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • juice of 4 big Meyer lemons
  • 1/2 liter sparkling water or club soda
In a tall pitcher, mix the honey and warm water, and stir until the honey is dissolved in the water. Add the lemon juice, stir, and fill the pitcher halfway up with ice cubes. Pour over the sparkling water, stir again, and serve. Feel free to adjust the honey to your taste - we like our lemonade on the tart side - and certainly, if you're using normal lemons instead of Meyer, you'll want to sweeten it more.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Recipe: Weston's strawberry shortcake

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Weston, my younger son, is seven, and one of his favorite after-school activities is the cooking class he takes one afternoon a week. It might be his favorite class because he adores his science teacher so much, and she leads the brigade of young chefs. But it might be his favorite because he realizes it's the rare seven-year-old who can bring home something handcrafted and still truly edible to his family. He's baked cornbread and cookies, pizza and casseroles.

A few weeks ago he came home with a photocopy of a recipe for strawberry shortcake. He'd never had it before, but because esteemed science teacher handed out the recipe, he knew he had to have it. By the time I had a chance to pull it together a few weeks had passed, but he was just as enthusiastic. He wasn't crazy about the biscuit, but the fruit and whipped cream pleased him immensely. I thought the whole thing was divine.

The trick to good strawberry shortcake is to macerate the fruit in sugar and a little lemon while you're making the biscuits and whipping the cream. The sugar draws out the juices in the fruit and makes a sauce with no work and no cooking. The berries keep their fresh taste and most of their texture.

Weston's strawberry shortcake
  • 4 cups strawberries, sliced
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1 cup cream
  • 2 Tbsp confectioner's sugar
Toss the strawberries, 1/4 cup sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest in a large bowl. Let stand while making biscuits.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Using your fingertips, rub in the butter until the mixture resembled small crumbs. Add the egg and milk, stirring by hand just enough to form a moist dough. Pat the dough out into a rectangle and cut into squares. Place the squares of dough on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake about 15 minutes, until tops are beginning to brown. Cool on a rack.

While the biscuits are baking, whip the cream with an electric mixer (or, if you're really ambitious, show off your muscles and do it by hand). When the cream is starting to look foamy, add the confectioner's sugar and continue to beat until the whipped cream holds soft peaks.

To serve, split open a biscuit, spoon on some strawberries with their juice, and top with the whipped cream.

For a change, someone else interviewed me!

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Frank Mundo, one of my colleagues at, writes about the Los Angeles book scene. In a recent piece about the closing of the wonderful Cook's Library, he interviewed me about how I use cookbooks and whether online recipes have killed the cookbook genre.

What an interesting change of pace, being the one answering the questions instead of asking them. At least I was lucky enough to have a good photo (see above), thanks to my wonderful friend Robyn Davis Skwarczek at Birdznest Photography. (Plug for Robyn: If you're in the Chicago area, set up a session. Her baby and child photos, and her maternity portraits, are unbelievably beautiful.)

Anyway, click here to read Frank's article.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sorry, all

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I would just like to report that between my new full-time job and the fact that we are putting a new roof on our house this week (thus tar paper dust an inch thick and everything covered in plastic), I have neither cooked nor written about cooking in quite a long time.

I promise this drought will not last forever.

My new friend Kathleen is sharing the last of the season's juicy limes with me. What should I make (when I can get into the kitchen again)?