Thursday, December 31, 2009

11 things food blogging has taught me

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Well, it's been a year (plus a few days) since the birth of this blog, and a year (minus a few days) since I started as the LA Cooking Examiner over at A year in which I've shopped, cooked, photographed, chronicled, compiled, and edited.

And other things happened, too: I made new friends. I went back to work full-time after eight years as a full-time at-home parent. My kids are one year closer to first dates, first kisses, driver's licenses, high school, college, real life. Yesterday was the 17th anniversary of the day Michael and I met. Milestones and progressions. But the biggest event in my own life this year, the biggest new thing I took on, was becoming a food writer - something I had wanted to do for a long time, something I'd talked about doing for a while, and something I finally decided to tackle this year.

So today, the last day of 2009, I thought I'd make a list of the things I've learned during this year of writing about food. I warn you, it's a list of personal discovery. No recipes. Hope that's okay.

1. I am not likely to write any recipes that involve separating eggs, white chocolate, whole fish, or organ meat (with the exception of chicken livers). In order, lazy, dislike, lazy, dislike.  

2. I am still scared of pie crust, or, more accurately, of the rolling pin. But I'm working on it.

3. Put me in front of my pantry and refrigerator, and even if we haven't shopped in two weeks, I will pull together a pretty tasty meal. It will include capers.

4. I really like vegetables. When I went through my archives the other day for my LA Cooking Examiner article "New Year's resolutions: Eat more vegetables," I was truly astonished at the number of vegetable recipes I've written this year. Every single one was a dish I loved eating. Who knew? And this from a girl whose mother served only frozen veggies - yes, really, particularly that mix of carrots, peas, corn and green beans. All the time. Sorry, Mom, you know I love you.

5. Nothing makes me happier than having the people I love at my dining room table. The fact that my family and friends support this crazy desire to cook all the time and test my creations on them, that they're willing to try anything, that they give me honest feedback, and that they tell me how much they like it when I cook for them - it fills me with joy.

6. I am really lucky to have married a guy who is "party compatible." He likes being the host. He likes that when people come over there's always interesting food on the table. And he's always willing to do the stuff I'm not as good at: bringing folding chairs and tables up from the garage, making sure everyone's got a glass, staying out at the party while I fuss in the kitchen. Also, when we remodeled our house 10 years ago, he designed me the most functional, comfortable, and beautiful kitchen I could have asked for. It's not the biggest, nor the most elegant, but it is truly a cook's kitchen. Lucky, every day.

7. I will love truffles (the fungi in the photo at right, not the chocolates) for the rest of my life.

8. My photography skills are, at best, mediocre - and I'm okay with that. Truthfully, I do get a bit jealous when I see food bloggers with the big cameras, the big lenses, fiddling with the white balance, knowing that they can lighten shadows and change backgrounds and whatever else people do in Photoshop. But I have to do the cost-benefit analysis. I have a full-time job, two kids, a husband, three blogs, and a definite need for eight hours of sleep each night. I'm a writer, not a photographer. So I'm learning to get the most out of my point-and-shoot, use a sheet of printer paper to reflect light, do basic editing in the program that came free with my version of Microsoft Office, and that's that.

9. Although it surprises me, I am now willing to write boring, SEO-friendly headlines so that search engines will find my articles more easily. So much for journalistic standards. Welcome to the new world. Adapt or die.

10. I am territorial in my kitchen. We were lucky enough to have two different professional chefs prepare elegant, multi-course dinners in our home this month. Both times, watching other people take over my kitchen gave me hives. I thought I could handle it. I could not. Next time, Xanax.

11. Writing is better than therapy. The single best thing food writing gave me this year was the ability - no, the mandate - to sit, focused, uninterrupted, and concentrate on one thing at a time. As those of you with jobs and children and husbands and houses know, working moms are the queens of multitasking. I'm right up there with the best of them, but that doesn't mean it's good for me. Everyone needs time to think about One Thing. When I'm writing - about food, about my kids, whatever - I am thinking about the story in front of me, how it moves from beginning to end, whether the words I type truly reflect the thoughts in my head, the voice that goes with my name. When I'm done, I read what I've written and I smile. Yes, that's me.

Happy new year to everyone - may 2010 be the start of a wonderful decade for all.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Recipe: "Signature" spinach salad with goat cheese, almonds and grapes

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There's a chapter in Amanda Hesser's culinary-romantic memoir Cooking for Mr. Latte where she talks about developing her repertoire - the go-to dishes every cook goes back to, meals friends and family request, specialties that become the cook's particular signature.

Along those lines, in my house we call this "Signature Salad." I think it was the first item in my repertoire, though it didn't really emerge until I was almost 30. I cooked in my 20s, but mostly for myself, in my shoebox of a kitchen on the upper West side of Manhattan - pasta with garlic, experiments with bread and kreplach, caponata and pissaladiere and pasta frittata from the New York Times and back issues of Gourmet. I shopped at the Union Square farmers market and in the ethnic stores on Ninth Avenue, and I entertained, but my apartment was small and my dinner parties unambitious. I didn't have a repertoire to speak of because I didn't cook for the same people over and over, unless you count my parents, who liked everything I made.

At least, that's what I remember now. I've noticed that when I think back to prior decades my memories have all the clarity of Monet's cathedrals; I can make out the points and the outlines, but up close the details are quite hazy. I know I had dinner parties when I lived in Manhattan in my 20s. Let's see, there was an orphans' Thanksgiving, where I made my first turkey and dropped the pumpkin pie made by a friend of a friend on the floor. There was an election-night celebration the day Bill Clinton won his first term - no idea what I served, but my friend Judith showed up with her arm in a cast, having slipped in the bathroom at work. One Mother's Day I had my parents and grandparents over for lunch, where I served poached chicken breasts with a lemony vinaigrette.

The rest of that period is a blur. Early Alzheimer's? God, I hope not. Guess I'll have to do some research - friends, no doubt, will have retained memories I've long since let go. (If anyone for whom I cooked in the early 90s is reading this, please share.)

In any case, when I met Michael and moved to California (and then New York and then California again), and we started having people over more regularly, my menus did settle down a bit. "Signature Salad" became the stable element within a more variable dinner-party lineup. It's not so much a recipe as a method: greens, something creamy, something crunchy, and something sweet, dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette and sprinkled with flaky salt. Most of the time the greens are baby spinach, but not always. For the creamy, goat cheese or feta. The crunchy element might be almonds, walnuts, or toasted pumpkin seeds. And the sweet note can be dried (raisins, cranberries) or fresh (halved grapes, tangerine segments, sweet Bing cherries in season). It's a light lunch if you add roasted or grilled chicken.

I'm still working on the rest of my regulars: the perfect roast chickensimple soups, biscuits, the yogurt cake I can put together on a moment's notice (with variations). But with this salad in my hip pocket, I know I'll always have at least one hit on the table.

Spinach salad with goat cheese, almonds and black grapes
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds
  • 2 bags ready-to-use baby spinach, washed and dried well
  • 4 ounces fresh goat cheese
  • 1 cup seedless black grapes, halved (or quartered if they're huge)
  • 2/3 cup classic French vinaigrette
  • a few pinches kosher salt or fleur de sel
Heat a dry nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the almonds and toast, shaking the pan, until the nuts are fragrant and starting to turn golden brown, about 3 minutes. Pour the nuts into a bowl and set aside to cool.

Put the spinach in a large salad bowl. Crumble the goat cheese on top with your fingers, then add the grapes and toasted almonds. Pour on the vinaigrette, sprinkle with the salt, and toss with tongs until the ingredients are well combined. Serve immediately.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Breakfast for two: Scrambled eggs with tomatillos from Simply Recipes

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It's the first Sunday morning of the kids' holiday break, and Weston is away at a sleepover. This means that Emery and I have the house to ourselves in the early hours. I think (hope) that on some level Emery misses his little brother when he's gone, but wisely, Emery sees Weston's absence primarily as a good opportunity to catch up on "Mommy time."  And of the boys, Emery seems to be the one who misses me more acutely these days.

I've been back at work full-time about nine months - after eight years as a full-time parent - and we're all still adjusting. Sometimes I'll glance at the clock on my computer in my office around afternoon carpool time, and a pang of - what - regret? loneliness? missing out? - stabs me in the middle, sharp as any knife in my drawer. I've learned not to show tears at work, but they spring out at unexpected times.

It's only a few hours each day when I used to be with my kids and now am not, but those are such important hours. I loved listening to the chatter in the back of the minivan on the way home from school as the kids dissected the events of the day. Now, when I get home just in time to make dinner and ask them about school, the answers come short and flippant: "It was fine, pretty good, okay, nothing much." They're over it by that point, no need to repeat or rehash on their side. I understand that completely, but sometimes I say: I know you told Daddy already, but I wasn't there. Tell me. Tell it again. Emery is good about it. Weston has less patience. It's normal. But it still feels like a loss.

Weston's social life these days rocks, and he's often away at a friend's house overnight. I'm so glad for him, but oh, I miss him when he's gone on the weekend. To keep from pining for my baby, and because I know it's not going to last forever, I savor the time alone with Emery. His "Mommy time" requests often involve the kitchen. Last night he asked "Can we make a special breakfast tomorrow?" It took me a minute to figure out what that should be, until I remembered the tomatillos and guacamole in the refrigerator. And then I knew: the scrambled eggs with tomatillos from Simply Recipes, written by the talented and thoughtful Elise Bauer. It's exactly his kind of dish: savory, flavorful, healthy, a touch exotic.

Emery takes after me in one important matter of the palate: Give him the choice between sweet or salty, and he'll always take salt. Protein or dessert? It's protein all the way. For Weston a special morning is chocolate chip pancakes with syrup and powdered sugar. Emery's treats always look more like dinner.

Emery reads a lot about food, and one day he was looking over my shoulder while I was catching on on the blogs in my reader. Elise's recipe was on my screen, and I saw his antennae go up. "We need to make this," he said insistently. "Soon." But weekends came and went, and "soon" turned into "someday." We made some interim versions - eggs with guacamole, eggs with hot sauce - but this was the first chance we had to make the recipe as it was originally intended.

Well, mostly as it was intended, anyway. We used green onions instead of yellow, and we left out the jalapeno. The avocado spread, a nontraditional guacamole I learned from Mirna, the boys' long-ago nanny, smoothed over the tangy tomatillos. Emery decided that next time he'd prefer the tomatillos be chopped more finely. But all in all, a huge hit. And a wonderful breakfast for two on a quiet morning at home. Thanks, Elise.

Want the recipe? Here it is: Scrambled eggs with tomatillos from Simply Recipes

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Recipe: Leftover lettuce vegetable soup (aka "Kitchen sink soup" or "Family soup")

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I'm lucky to have two boys who like to cook. Strangely enough, however, they're rarely in the mood to cook at the same time. To make matters worse, it often happens that one of them decides he's ready to cook just as I'm finishing up. Bad timing. Out of sync.

But this past weekend the stars were in alignment, and after breakfast all of us wanted some time in the kitchen. The refrigerator was stuffed with leftover ingredients from the previous night's dinner party - I'd given over my kitchen to a wonderful chef from Napa so he could make a stunning dinner for my husband's watch-collector friends. He left an eclectic assortment of prepped vegetables and herbs, bits of leftover cheese, and a few mystery ingredients I was a tiny bit scared to investigate. There was quite a bit of lettuce, too.

We are not a huge salad-eating family. Michael, my husband, considers salad an obligation, though he'll eat it to set a good example. The boys will eat salad with certain constraints. Emery, the elder, prefers a sesame or miso dressing with tender butter lettuce, or the salad with truffle oil and Meyer lemon he engineered last summer. Weston, the younger, will only eat Caesar salad; I have learned to make a pretty good Caesar dressing, which I keep in the refrigerator in a jar and hope not to confuse with the jar of homemade caramel sauce come ice cream time.

I hate to throw out food, so lettuce soup has become a staple. The original version, a lettuce soup with tarragon, is an excellent base, but adding other vegetables and herbs changes things up. And I love making soup with my kids: There's just enough slicing and chopping, but because it will all be pureed smooth later, the exact size and shape don't matter. It helps that both boys love soup in most any form. Top it with something crunchy - homemade croutons, most often, although crushed tortilla chips will do when I'm short on bread and/or time - and the soup disappears.

So Emery chopped onions and potatoes. I cut up a head of cauliflower. Weston sliced celery. And it all went into the pot with several handfuls of leftover salad greens, a bit of dried tarragon, vegetable stock concentrate, and water just to cover. We brought it to a boil, turned down the heat, simmered until everything was soft, buzzed it with the stick blender, then added a little cream. Weston always tastes for seasoning at the end, and he has an exacting palate: "A little salt, a tiny  bit of pepper, and some lemon juice," he said authoritatively. I followed his lead, and he tasted again. "Perfect," he said. And the soup was done.

With a soup like this, quantities and proportions are approximate, so feel free to adjust to your particular tastes or the contents of your vegetable drawer on a given day. Just make sure you have enough potatoes to give the soup some body when it's pureed. And feel free to use chicken stock instead of the vegetable stock concentrate and water - the soup will definitely taste richer.

Kitchen Sink Soup, or Family Soup, or Leftover Lettuce Vegetable Soup
(Use whichever name you like best)
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 lb Idaho potatoes, any variety, unpeeled, diced
  • 1 head cauliflower, cut into smallish pieces
  • 4 stalks celery, diced
  • 6 cups salad greens, washed and torn or cut into pieces
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable stock concentrate
  • 1 tsp dried tarragon
  • water just to cover
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer the soup until the vegetables are very soft, about 40 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat and blitz with a hand-held blender until the soup is smooth; it won't be completely velvety unless you strain it through a fine-mesh strainer, but that takes out much of the fiber, so I don't recommend it. Add the cream, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir and serve with croutons on top. (Yes, I know the soup is garnished with chopped bell peppers in the photo. It looks pretty, but it doesn't taste very good. Skip it, unless you're taking pictures.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Aunt Else's aebleskivers - Danish round filled pancakes

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For a few years now I've been fascinated with those infomercials for the "pancake puff pan." You know - the one with the little wells, where if you pour the batter just so and turn it just so and stick something in the middle, you end up with breakfast that looks like a donut but tastes like a pancake. My kids begged me to call the number and get the pan. Never did. The concept, though, was appealing.

Then, at the Foodbuzz Blogger Festival in San Francisco last month, I met Chad Gillard, the president of Aunt Else's Aebleskiver. Chad had a demo table at the tasting pavilion and was making these little round pancakes filled with jam, chocolate and other goodies. It looked easy enough. And Chad's company makes its own cast-iron aebleskiver pan in a unique design that sports nine holes instead of the more commonly seen seven - very appealing when you're trying to feed a crowd. So, with Chad's encouragement, I agreed to let him send me a starter kit (pan, turning stick, aebleskiver mix) to play with.

And boy, have I been having fun.

After seasoning the pan - same as any other cast-iron pan, just coat it with oil and bake it in the oven for a while - I made a batch of plain ones. Then I filled some with homemade plum jam. Inside a few, I put a little cube of Swiss cheese. And then I broke out the chocolate: Nutella, then some leftover ganache I had from a batch of mini chocolate tarts, then chocolate chips. And all I can say is:

Wow. Happy family. (Particularly with respect to the chocolate ones.)

The pan Chad sent is great. The pancakes don't stick once the pan is properly seasoned, and while the instructions suggest pouring oil into each well before adding the batter, I've been using cooking spray instead with fine results. The turning technique takes some practice, but of course Aunt Else's has thought of everything: They've got a video on YouTube showing just how to turn the little buggers so the pancakes come out perfectly round. As you can see from the mostly round results in the photo above, I think I've got it.

Chad also sent over a bag of Aunt Else's aebleskiver mix, which I used for the batches I've made so far.The all-natural mix is made using old Danish family recipe - the story about the Andersen-Henriksen sisters is on the Aunt Else's website if you're interested in the details - using organic wheat flour from the Midwest. You add eggs and water, and that's it. I'm not a huge fan of pancake mix in general, but the results of this one were nice: light, eggy, fluffy. The aebleskivers made from the mix got excellent reviews from my husband, who is notoriously critical and hard to please.

That said, I'm a cook, so I'm going to experiment and find a good recipe I can make from scratch. Some of the recipes I've found online call for separating eggs; that's not something I'm likely to do on a regular basis. Others are closer to a regular pancake mix, with buttermilk and baking powder. We'll see. In any case, it seems as though a relatively thin batter worked better for me than a relatively thick batter.

So if you, too, are ready to experiment with aebleskiver, or if there's someone on your holiday gift list who likes festive breakfasts, I've got good news. Aunt Else's is offering you a 10 percent discount on purchases from their website or their Foodzie store ( if you fan or follow them on Facebook, Twitter or FoodBuzz. Just include your fan/follow option(s) and "In Erika's Kitchen" in the "Add special instructions to the seller" section during the checkout process. The starter kit ($52.99) includes the pan, a hot pad for the handle, a package of aebleskiver mix, and a stainless steel turning stick.

Happy aebleskiving!

P.S. Look who else is writing about aebleskivers - La Fuji Mama, one of my favorite bloggers! She made hers savory and cheesy, which inspired last night's dinner in my house. Yum yum!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dining in Las Vegas

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For those who don't know me, I'm the one in the hot pink. That lovely lady next to me? That's my mom. My wonderful, funny, loving, fiercely loyal mom. With whom I spent Thanksgiving week this year in Las Vegas. We both needed a break; we hadn't had any time alone together to regroup in the 14 months since my dad passed away. And with my husband and kids fully occupied with my in-laws in northern California, it was the perfect time for Mom and me to slip away. Lazy mornings, a spa day, the movies, shopping, three shows (Cher, Barry Manilow, and Jersey Boys), and lots of really nice meals.

Mommy: Thanks for a wonderful vacation, the best part of which was your company. For the rest of you, I know what you really want to see - the culinary highlights.

At the luxurious Joel Robuchon, a caviar-and-crab amuse bouche, served in a caviar tin; artistic bread, possibly the best part of the meal; veal cheeks in a Thai broth; duck breast with foie gras; lovely desserts; and me, taking pictures of the lovely desserts:


The next day, lunch at RM Seafood, including creamy trout salad with roasted beets; iceberg salad with blue cheese and buttermilk dressing; lobster rolls with just the right amount of mayonnaise (accompanied by an outstanding chipotle jicama slaw); and a visit from chef Rick Moonen himself, with the inscription he wrote in the book my mom bought me:


For our Thanksgiving dinner at Carnevino, no turkey. Instead, bone-in ribeye for two, aged to perfection; roasted butternut squash with fregola sarde (like Israeli couscous) and pecorino cheese; and hard choices from the dessert menu (we settled on pomegranate sorbet, pear sorbet, and chocolate malt ice cream):


The following evening at Daniel Boulud Brasserie, creamy artichoke soup with foie gras "croutons"; turbot en croute; scallops Sicilian-style, with raisins, capers and cauliflower:


For our final dinner at Bradley Ogden, Caesar salad; the justly famous Bradley Ogden burger, which we split as a less-than-traditional intermezzo; wild mushroom risotto, which, to be honest, was watery and underseasoned, making me wonder if the chef had to stretch the pot or maybe failed to saute the mushrooms enough before adding them to the rice; and a very nice butterscotch pudding:


And there were two breakfasts at Thomas Keller's Bouchon, with the best virgin Mary I've ever tasted; assorted pastries; raspberry beignets; spinach quiche; and smoked salmon terrine:


All in all, a really good week of dining. Now if we could only make Las Vegas a nonsmoking town - I'd be back every year. But I get the sense that's out of reach....