Thursday, July 30, 2009

Images from my nine-course truffle dinner party

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I'm not done with the recipes from our nine-course truffle dinner party, but I hear a picture's worth a thousand words...which means I won't have to write again for several weeks after I show you all these amazing photos. My friend Noelle Swan Gilbert, who is a beautiful photographer, somehow managed to coax these shots out of my little point-and-shoot Canon. Talent indeed.

We pushed the dining table against the wall and set it up as a buffet. The tray below held the tartines with radish and truffle butter (see the recipe, if you can call it that, here).

I also served crostini with fresh ricotta, a drizzle of honey, grated black summer truffle, and fresh thyme (the recipe is here, on my LA Cooking Examiner column). This was inspired by a starter I had a few weeks ago at The Cookery in Dobbs Ferry, New York - theirs used truffle-infused honey, and I have to say, I think the fresh truffle was a teeny tiny bit better.

I put out a bowl of truffled egg salad with crackers. It's just chopped hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, creme fraiche, white truffle oil, truffle salt, and shaved fresh truffles. Pretty much heaven on a cracker.

Lisa Fielding, a delightful entertainment-mogul-turned-personal-chef (and a good friend), helped me with the roasted potato chips with fontina and grated truffle. I knew what I wanted, but I wasn't sure how to execute it. Lisa knew exactly what to do: She peeled and sliced the potatoes, then soaked them in water for about 15 minutes to get rid of some of the starch. Then she bathed them in a combination of butter and olive oil and roasted them in a hot oven for about half an hour. We added a dab of fontina, grated the truffle over, and done. These were completely addictive.

The salad was a variation on Emery's salad, my 10-year-old son's first original recipe. I sauteed pancetta until it was golden, then added it to the bitter green lettuce, which was dressed simply with truffle oil, Meyer lemon juice and truffle salt. Then I grated truffles over the top and tossed it together. The first bowl, which included two huge heads of lettuce, was gone in less than five minutes.

Can't have truffles without pasta, can you? I did it as simply as possible: Spaghetti tossed in butter, freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and lots and lots of grated truffles. The smell permeated every inch of the kitchen. In all, I made four pounds of pasta for 30 people, and there was not one single strand left over.

The truffled corn pudding was the only dish I wasn't too keen on. I used a basic recipe - fresh corn, milk, flour, eggs, butter - but because I tripled the original quantity, it didn't cook through or set properly. It sort of looked like corn mixed into very mushy scrambled eggs. It tasted great, though, very sweet and creamy. With the fresh truffles grated and mixed in, it had a truly unique flavor.

The filet mignon bites in truffle butter didn't photograph well, but they were absolutely the most tender and flavorful pieces of beef I have ever eaten. We cut the meat into bite-sized chunks, and I sauteed it in butter in a very hot pan for less than a minute, then tossed it in truffle butter.

My husband chose a lovely Provencal rose to go with the truffle feast - light, fruity, just perfect.

I made two kinds of ice cream for dessert: Fresh fig (the pink one), and truffle-honey (the white one). The fig ice cream was sweet and sticky, basically a frozen mixture of fresh fig jam, lemon juice, and cream. The truffle-honey had a very subtle flavor: It looked like vanilla, but the first bite made it clear this was no ordinary white ice cream. I was surprised at how much the kids at the party liked it - the flavor was quite sophisticated.

I've already told my dealers - er, I mean contacts - that my truffle addiction is far from satisfied. The Oregon white truffles will be available in a few months. Better start planning the next party.

P.S. Up next, white truffle season - see this article on white truffles by Michelle Stiner, the Salt Lake City Gourmet Food Examiner (who knew you could get truffles in Salt Lake City? Okay, my coastal bias is showing).

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The business of cooking: How Eutopian Chocolates made a market for marshmallows

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[This article is part of a series. If you like it, click here for the story of Salsa Senorita.]

Like many food businesses, Eutopian Chocolates was more or less founded by accident. After years of working 50-plus-hour weeks and traveling often for her job, Sherry Smith-Noble was tired. She scaled back to part-time and started down her to-do wish list, which included learning to make marshmallows. Friends loved them, asked if they could buy them, and a business was born.

So how did Sherry's gourmet marshmallows end up in stores? Here's an inside look at the growth of her business.

Why marshmallows? The candy market is saturated. Even in Grand Rapids, where Sherry lives and runs her business, there are many local candy businesses. That's why she chose to focus on a niche product. She started with a recipe she found online, then experimented with flavors: strawberry, orange, mint, lavender, chai, coffee (one of her best sellers). At this point she's sticking with a small set of flavors as she learns to balance her inventory.

Going commercial: When it came time to find a commercial kitchen, there were lots of choices. Restaurants that go belly-up often rent out their kitchens after closing their doors, but those are expensive, and Sherry didn't need that much space. She ended up in her commercial kitchen through a friend of a friend. It's small, but there's room to grow.The best part of her work kitchen: industrial baking racks, storage, and the chocolate tempering machine (I want one of those too!).

Unpleasant surprises: Eutopian's December 2008 sales were through the roof. Sherry thought she had it made. And then came January - nothing. She hadn't anticipated the holiday bump. That's when she started looking for retail outlets who would carry her products year-round. She looks for upscale shops, and based on their feedback she's changed her packaging, portion sizes, etc.

Marketing: Lots of word of mouth, particularly from locals who find her products in their regular shops. All the shops in which she sells came via referral. She also does wedding favors, which bring in large chunks of cash and help spread the word about her products. Her company name had marketing implications, too - she purposely left "marshmallow" out of the name, in case she decides to branch out later. But her secret sauce (no pun intended) is her husband, who works as a marketing director and has helped tremendously with that aspect of building a business. And he works for free. (Or for marshmallows.)

The future: New flavors, new retail outlets, building her online sales. But Sherry is taking it slow. The business is self-funded, so she's careful about hiring (she uses temps during crush periods) and investing in expensive equipment. She's hoping word of mouth will help her grow organically.

For more information about Eutopian Chocolates or to order online, visit

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What do to with a pound of black summer truffles

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This week marks my shift from avid home cook to truly obsessive foodie, courtesy of the summer black truffle. And Kelly Orange at Specialty Produce is my enabler.

On Thursday, Kelly called to say that she had a pound of Italian black summer truffles for me, at a very good price. I said: Oh yes. At 6:30am yesterday, I was in a Carl's Jr. parking lot near the La Cienega exit of the 10 freeway. I pulled up next to a white pickup. Both engines were running. I opened my window; he handed me a small brown box. To anyone else, I'm sure it looked like a drug deal. I drove home with my goods, put them in the refrigerator. And started planning the party.

An aside here: I am so lucky to be married to my husband. I imagine that most men, should their wives call and breathlessly tell them they've just spent a bundle on truffles, would say one of two things. One: "Are you nuts?" Or two: "That's nice, dear." Whereas Michael said: "That's fantastic! Who's on the list?" Because, of course, at that point the party was implied, a given. That's my husband - always happy to be throwing the party. For which, among other things, I love him dearly.

But what to do with said truffles? For the, um, let's see, close to 30 people coming to share the bounty? (Note: Many people will cancel existing plans in order to attend a truffle party.)

I started by soliciting some professional advice, which I compiled into an article for my LA Cooking Examiner column (read it here). Truffles seem to have some common and willing companions: eggs, potatoes, pasta, rice. It's best to pair truffles with bland backgrounds, so the earthy-muddy flavor of the truffles can shine. I love the recipe for tagliatelle with black truffle sauce I got from Alex Palermo, the owner of Cube Cafe & Marketplace on La Brea - just pounded truffles, oil and garlic, nothing else. The simpler, the better.

Professional tips in hand, I set out to make a menu for tomorrow's Trufflepalooza. So far it looks like this:
  • Tartines with truffle butter and thinly sliced radishes (see the recipe here)
  • Crostini with fresh ricotta, honey, thyme and shaved truffles
I would like to note here that yes, I do know that tartines and crostini are essentially the same thing: toast. But one combination is traditionally French, the other very Italian. Thus the semi-pretentious nomenclature.
  • Truffled egg salad
  • Roasted potato "chips" with fontina and shaved truffles
  • Truffled fresh corn pudding
  • Spaghetti with butter, cream, Parmigiano-Reggiano and grated truffles
  • Filet mignon bites with truffle butter
  • Emery's salad with truffle vinaigrette, pancetta and grated truffles
  • Truffle honey ice cream with fresh figs
I think that should use up a pound of truffles.

I can't wait for the party - and yes, I'll post lots of photos.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Recipe: Zucchini ribbons with basil

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This is the story of a perfect vegetable dish on an imperfect day.

I don't actually remember why the day was imperfect. It was this week sometime, and I was hot. I'd just come home from work, what felt like a long day. My shoulders were tight and my hands were sore and my eyes burned from too many hours at a desk, staring at a computer. My kids, clean and tired after their day at camp on the beach, were watching TV like zombies. My wonderful husband was home, but maybe at his desk. I was in the kitchen. I was sweaty. I was feeling a little lonely. And I was starving.

I remember getting dinner started, and then, while it was cooking, going out to check the garden. I remember finding one lone zucchini that needed to be picked, twisting it off, trying to figure out if one zucchini would make enough for a batch of muffins, deciding it wouldn't. Snapping a stem of basil. Walking inside and thinking, zucchini and basil - that's enough.

I shaved the zucchini into ribbons, leaving the seeds and mushy center for the compost pile. I rolled the leaves of basil into cigarettes and sliced them into thin shreds - chiffonade, a word I love, a technique I've mastered. I sauteed the zucchini for exactly two minutes in a dab of olive oil, with a clove of crushed garlic thrown in as an afterthought. I turned the zucchini into a bowl, added the basil, ground on some salt and pepper, and showered the dish with some grated Grana Padano. So beautiful. So summer. So perfect.

And then, before dinner was even ready, I ate it. All of it. Turns out that one zucchini may not be enough for muffins, but it's enough for one very hungry person's first course. Perfect.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Recipe: Bacon and cheese quesadilla (aka dinner for a tired boy)

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I just finished pouring Weston, my seven-year-old, into bed. He spent the day asea on the boat of a school friend, and I'm not sure exactly what they did all day (because he was way too tired for details), but he came home exhausted and hungry. On a night like this, when tired and crabby walk in the door together and quickly dissolve into frustrated tears, only a bacon and cheese quesadilla will do.

You may already have read about Mirna's squash blossom quesadillas, which still rank high among our family quesadilla requests. The other day I picked two zucchini flowers from the garden and, while washing one, found a happy bumblebee stuck inside one of the blossoms. He was so content he didn't even have the energy required to sting me before I washed him down the drain. I chopped the zucchini flowers and made the boys their breakfast, and Weston went to camp with pollen on his chin.

Tonight, though, there was neither time nor impetus to head to the garden. It was dusk, the boy was melting, and every second counted. So I put together the tried and true: a fresh tortilla filled with "Mexican blend" cheese and crumbled cooked bacon. And, after it was gone, the boy shuffled slowly toward bed.

Note: Emery, my ten-year-old (ten and a half, he'd remind me to write), likes this quesadilla with a bit of hot sauce splashed in. Their dad takes it with or without.

Bacon and cheese quesadilla
  • 2 flour tortillas (I buy the unbaked ones at Costco and griddle them for 30 seconds on each side in a nonstick pan)
  • 1/2 cup shredded Mexican blend cheese (or substitute Monterey Jack)
  • 1/4 cup crumbled cooked bacon (I use the ready-to-use stuff in the bag, also from Costco - we buy it by the dozen)
Put a tortilla in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat - you can coat the pan with cooking spray if you like, but it's not necessary, and I usually don't. Add half the cheese and half the bacon. Fold the tortilla in half and grill, pressing down with a spatula, until golden; flip and do the same on the other side. Repeat with the second tortilla. Serve immediately to two hungry boys or girls.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Recipe: Fresh peach cobbler, easier than pie

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Okay, I admit it: I am scared of pie crust. Actually, if I'm being perfectly honest, I am scared of almost anything that involves a rolling pin and floured countertops and the possibility that the dough will get tough if you work it too much. Which leaves me pretty stymied when it comes to pies, tarts, galettes, and many varieties of cookies.

Yes, I will get over this fear. At some point. But at least, for now, I always have the cobbler.

This recipe involves peaches, but the method has worked well for me with many different kinds of fruit. The bottom is easy: fruit, sugar, a little cornstarch or flour to thicken things up. The topping is a variation on a basic no-roll biscuit recipe my college roommate Ellen got from her mother for her wedding. It's an old family recipe that requires no butter, comes together in about three minutes, and can be made sweet or savory. It's one of my most treasured bits of paper.

Easy fresh peach cobbler
  • 6 large or 10 small peaches, cut into chunks
  • 3/4 cup sugar, divided
  • 2 cups plus 3 Tbsp flour, divided
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup canola oil (substitute melted butter if you like)
  • 2/3 cup plain yogurt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the peaches with 1/4 cup sugar and 3 Tbsp flour, and the lemon juice in a bowl. Let sit about 3o minutes. Mix again, then pour into a baking dish which you've coated with cooking spray.

While the peaches are sitting, make the topping: Whisk together the remaining flour and sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. In a measuring cup, pour the oil and spoon in the yogurt (the oil first up to the 1/3 cup mark, then the yogurt until it reaches the 1 cup mark). Whisk them together a bit, then pour into the dry ingredients. Mix it all together with a spatula or wooden spoon. When the dough has come together, knead it a few times in the bowl with one hand.

Pinch off globs of the dough and scatter them on top of the fruit. Sprinkle with a little extra sugar if you like, or not. Bake the cobbler about 45 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling furiously and the biscuit topping is golden brown. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream, or on its own.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Recipe: Emery's salad with crumbled bacon and truffle vinaigrette

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When Emery, my 10-year-old son, isn't particularly hungry at dinnertime, he asks for salad. Tonight he specifically wanted this sophisticated version, with slightly bitter lettuce, crumbled bacon, white truffle oil and Meyer lemon juice.

Now let's just pause a moment to consider how lucky I am to have a kid who likes eating salad for dinner.

And then another moment to consider how lucky he is that salad is such a meaningful part of his life at age 10. This salad made him happy. Let me tell you, the only foods that made me that happy at his age were much, much unhealthier. (I am not naming them specifically because I'm sure the cravings would start anew.) And I have the Weight Watchers membership to prove it.

This salad is based on one we've had several times at Le Saint Amour, a lovely French restaurant in Culver City. Bruno and Florence, the owners, shared the recipe for their frisee salad with truffle vinaigrette with me a few weeks ago, and it's posted here. Emery's version is much simpler but equally elegant and aromatic - just perfect for a summer evening.

Emery's salad with crumbled bacon and truffle vinaigrette
  • 3 cups of any slightly bitter lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces (we used green leaf lettuce, but frisee would do nicely too - don't use Romaine or iceberg)
  • 2 tsp white truffle oil
  • pinch of truffle salt (optional - can substitute sea salt)
  • juice of 1/2 small Meyer lemon
  • 1/4 cup crumbled cooked bacon
Put the lettuce in a large bowl. Drizzle with the truffle oil and dust with the truffle salt. Squeeze the lemon over the salad and toss. Add the bacon and toss again. Taste and adjust the seasonings.