Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rhubarb yogurt cake

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The cake: a traditional French yogurt cake with a layer of chopped fresh rhubarb. The rhubarb, simmered briefly with sugar so it softens slightly before meeting the batter, is pleasantly sour and contrasts nicely with the sweet, soft cake.

The first compliment, from my friend Amanda: "This cake is the BOMB. Of all the things you've made while I've been staying here [and there have been many, as she's been here about six months], this is my favorite."

The second compliment, from Amanda's friend Shawn: "If this cake magically appeared in my kitchen, I would eat it every single day."

The beautiful secret: One bowl, one whisk, 10 minutes from ingredients to oven. And that includes chopping the rhubarb.
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Rhubarb yogurt cake
A traditional, fluffy French yogurt cake topped with chopped fresh rhubarb.
  • 5 stalks fresh rhubarb, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups 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 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp rum
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.Combine the rhubarb and 1/2 cup sugar in a small saucepan. Let sit 15 minutes on the counter; the sugar will draw some of the liquid out of the rhubarb, creating a syrup. Put the pan on the stove over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer the sugared rhubarb about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, remaining 1 cup sugar, yogurt and oil. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, stirring to combine. (If I'm not sifting - which isn't necessary here - I always put my baking powder and baking soda through a little fine-mesh strainer as I add it to the mixing bowl. You only need to bite into a lump of baking powder once to make the little strainer your best friend.) Add the vanilla extract and rum and whisk just until the mixture is smooth.Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Lift the chopped rhubarb out of the saucepan with a slotted spoon and scatter it on top of the batter. Don't throw away the rhubarb liquid - it's delicious mixed with club soda or sparkling wine.Bake the cake 35-40 minutes or until the top is golden and the center is set; a toothpick should come out with a few crumbs clinging to it. Cool on a rack and serve directly from the baking dish.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 12 servings

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cooking for the crowds at the DOLE 2012 California Cook-Off

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Writing this blog has led me to some really fun experiences, and this weekend was one of the best yet.

When DOLE asked if I'd be willing to sous chef for one of the three finalists in their 2012 California Cook-Off, I said yes before I'd even checked my calendar.

Chop and mince in front of a live audience at the Grove, one of the hottest shopping and strolling destinations in Los Angeles? Yes.

Cozy up to celebrity chef Ben Ford to talk pork, grilling and DOLE products? Oh, yes.

Help one of three home cooks turn out their recipe for the judges and compete for the grand prize? Heck yes.

Talk into the emcee's microphone to explain to the crowds what we're making? Yes, of course - you know how I love to talk.

The whole thing sounded like Erika Nirvana. I jumped at the opportunity.

Host Tom Lowe introducing chef Ben Ford's grilling demo
DOLE had lots of products on display and handed out samples to the crowd

The DOLE California Cook-Off recipe contest got hundreds of entries. The DOLE team narrowed it down to 20, then spent days taste-testing to pick the three finalists. Each finalist was paired with a local L.A. blogger assistant.

Michelle and Amelia

Michelle Wiederhold made Pineapple-Pork Quesadillas with Mandarin Crema. She was paired with blogger Amelia Winslow of Eating Made Easy.

Richard and Pamela

Richard Swanson made Banana Corn Crepes with Grilled Fruit and Ricotta. His partner: Pamela Braun of My Man's Belly. Notice that the two redheads ended up on the same team.

Jeanette with her Island Pork Sliders, ready for the judges

I was paired with Jeanette Nelson, a charming mother of three from Crab Orchard, West Virginia. Jeanette's been on the recipe contest circuit for a few years now; she'd been through this cook-off thing before. Jeanette's Taste of DOLE Island Pork Sliders with Pineapple Jicama Salsa were truly fabulous - ultra-juicy pork patties studded with DOLE pineapple and mango on a sweet Hawaiian roll, topped with a fresh crunchy salsa. The recipe will be up on the DOLE website soon - don't worry, I'll let you know. You'll definitely want to try making these at home.

Jeanette's Taste of DOLE Island Pork Sliders with Pineapple Jicama Salsa

Jeanette and I were both a bit nervous, but we'd planned every step of the recipe out carefully ahead of time and knew exactly who would be doing what. We were so organized we even had a few minutes to spare between taking the sliders off the grill and plating them. This actually helped us - letting the pork sliders rest covered in foil for a few minutes kept them nice and juicy.

All the dishes looked delicious, but when the verdict was in, Jeanette's pork sliders took the grand prize! I was thrilled for her. When emcee Tom Lowe asked Jeanette what she planned to do with her winnings, she said she would take her husband and three daughters on a beach vacation and use the rest to pay off debts. Tom loved her accent so much that he then made her sing "Country Roads" into the microphone for the whole crowd to hear - twice. She was a good sport about it both times, although I think she sang louder the second time (after she'd won).

So now I've gotten a taste of what it's like to cook for an audience...on the clock...and to have to be witty when a microphone gets stuck in my face as I'm wielding a sharp knife. I loved it. Next stop: Iron Chef!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Strawberry juice

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I am completely in love with my Vitamix blender. I've never loved the idea of juicing because it leaves behind so much good stuff - mostly fiber, which we all need more of, right?

On the other hand, my Vitamix is so powerful that I can throw just about anything in there with some water and get a smooth juice-like result without having to throw anything away.

For a recent beach picnic with my buddies from Food Bloggers Los Angeles, I whizzed up some strawberries (hulls and all!), fresh mint, lime juice and water. I added a little sugar, but it wasn't strictly necessary. The end result: velvety red nectar that made everyone quite happy. If your blender doesn't do quite as good a job as mine, you might want to strain the final product to get rid of any little bits or chunks.

Note: Nobody paid or gave me anything to praise my Vitamix. I bought it with my own hard-earned money and use it almost every day.

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Strawberry juice or strawberry smoothie
Whether you call it juice or a smoothie, this velvety-smooth fresh strawberry drink will dress up your next picnic. If you don't have a professional-strength blender, you might want to strain the finished product before serving.
  • 3 pints fresh strawberries, rinsed, hulls on
  • 1 lime, juice only (about 1/8 cup)
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
  • 3 Tbsp granulated sugar (optional)
  • 1 1/2 cups water (or more to achieve desired texture)
Put all ingredients in a high-powered blender. Blend on high until completely smooth. Add more water as needed to achieve desired texture. I like my strawberry juice the consistency of whole milk, but you may want yours thinner or thicker.Chill at least 1 hour before serving.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: approximately 1.5 quarts

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Postcard from Charlotte: Carolina BBQ

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One of the great side benefits (no pun intended) of two days of meetings with my company's sales team in Charlotte, NC: Authentic Carolina barbeque brought in for lunch. Pulled pork, beans, mac and cheese, and cole slaw delivered from Frankie Boys.

There were three sauces: vinegar, tomato-vinegar, and mustard. I tried them all but preferred the vinegar, which I was told was most typical in the Charlotte area. Pulled pork got piled on a white hamburger bun, then topped with cole slaw and dripped with the vinegar sauce. An excellent taste of Charlotte!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Steak sandwiches with herb butter and arugula

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My goal for this summer is to take my kids on more picnics. Whether we head to the beach, go for a hike or spread a blanket on the grass in the backyard, I want to spend more time eating fun food outdoors with my family. If a football is involved, so much the better.

This month the members of Food Bloggers Los Angeles convened at the beach in Santa Monica. We snagged a picnic table on the grassy belt near the bike path and set up our potluck feast. No sand in our beach picnic, but we were okay with that. All the food got eaten, but somehow, despite the June Gloom (it's a distinct season in coastal southern California), I took home a heck of a sunburn.

I brought hearty steak sandwiches. I like hand-held food for picnics, and the beach makes me hungry. I bought French rolls, spread them with homemade herb butter, laid on a layer of sliced New York strip steak, and topped the meat with a handful of spicy baby arugula. Cut in half and wrapped in foil, the steak sandwiches were perfectly portable and disappeared quickly.

What's your favorite picnic dish? I'd love to hear from you - will you take a moment to leave a comment?

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Gourmet steak sandwiches with herb butter and arugula
A dressed-up steak sandwich perfect for a summer picnic. Be sure to let the steak cool before laying the slices on the bread - the herb butter should be soft but not melted.
  • 2 New York strip steaks, 10-12 ounces each, about 1 inch thick
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 6 oblong French rolls
  • 1/4 cup herb butter, softened (at room temperature)
  • 2 cups baby arugula, washed and spun dry
Heat a ridged grill pan over high heat on the stove, or light your gas or charcoal grill. Sprinkle the steaks generously with salt and pepper on both sides. When the grill is very hot, lay the steaks down and leave them alone for 3-4 minutes. Flip the steaks and cook another 2 minutes on the second side for medium-rare. Remove the steaks from the grill and put them on a plate or cutting board; cover the steaks loosely with aluminum foil. Let the steaks cool to room temperature, then trim any visible fat and gristle and slice thinly with a very sharp knife.Cut the French rolls in half lengthwise. Divide the herb butter evenly among the 12 halves, coating the rolls with the butter all the way to the edges. Lay the steak slices on 6 of the pieces of bread and sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper. Divide the arugula evenly among the 6 sandwiches, then top with the remaining buttered half-rolls. Cut the sandwiches in half crosswise, wrap each sandwich in aluminum foil or waxed paper, and pack in a cooler to take to your picnic.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 6 sandwiches

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lebanese stuffed grape leaves with lamb

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Our across-the-street neighbors grow grapes in their backyard. Just a few vines against a sunny fence. I've never happened to be there when the grapes ripen, but I do pop over occasionally in the spring when the leaves are light green and tender - perfect for stuffing.

Stuffed grape leaves are one of my favorite snacks but for years I resisted making them at home. Then I met Lisa Fielding, an entertainment-industry-executive-turned-screenwriter-and-underground-restaurant-chef-and-caterer (her company: Secret Ingredients). Lisa's a California girl but her father's job took the family abroad during her youth, including a few years in Beirut. These stuffed grape leaves with ground lamb and fresh mint remind Lisa of her years in Lebanon

Most of us don't have access to fresh grape leaves; the grape leaves packed in brine sold in jars work very well. If you're using fresh leaves, as I did, blanch them in boiling water for about 30 seconds before making the rolls, and add more salt and lemon to make up for the lack of brine.

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Stuffed grape leaves with lamb and mint
I learned to make these Lebanese-style stuffed grape leaves from Los Angeles caterer Lisa Fielding. If you can get fresh grape leaves, by all means use them; blanch them in boiling water for 30 seconds before making the rolls, and add a little extra salt and lemon.
  • 1 jar grape leaves, brined (about 50; look for them in the pickle section)
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 1 16-ounce can tomatoes, diced
  • 1 cup long-grain white rice, uncooked
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 2 bunches green onions, chopped
  • 2 large bunches fresh mint, chopped (about 3 cups)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 lemons, juice only
Remove the grape leaves from the jar and rinse in cold water. With a scissor, snip the tough stem off the bottom of each leaf. Set aside.In a large bowl, mix the lamb, tomatoes, rice, olive oil, green onions, mint, and salt.Lay one grape leaf, vein-side up, on a cutting board. Place a tablespoon of filling in the middle of the leaf. Now this is the tricky part. Fold up the bottom of the leaf over the filling. Fold down the top of the leaf over the filling. Now tuck one side under the filling and roll sideways into a little cigar shape, just as you would roll a burrito. Don't be too rough, or you'll split the grape leaf and the filling will squirt out.When you've rolled all the grape leaves, pack them into a pot with a steamer insert. Put them snugly next to each other; this will help the grape leaves hold their shape as they're cooking. Pour the lemon juice over, fill the pot up to the level of the steamer, and place over high heat until the water boils. Turn down the heat and steam the grape leaves about one hour, or until the rice is cooked (test after 50 minutes by cutting open one of the rolls).Serve warm with plain yogurt.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: about 45 pieces

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Chef Robert Irvine talks avocados

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Food Network celebrity chef Robert Irvine with a fellow avocado lover in Universal City, CA

When I get an opportunity to chat with a celebrity chef, I grab it.

Yesterday Chef Robert Irvine, who stars in Food Network's completely addictive show Restaurant: Impossible, kicked off an 85-day "Add-vocado" campaign with Subway here in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the Subway where he was slinging subs was clear across town from my office. I couldn't get there on a work day, much as I would have liked to check out his legendary biceps in person.

But a polite request to Subway's public relations group got me an early morning phone call with the chef. I was bleary, but Chef Irvine, who had already finished his morning workout, was wide awake and firing on all cylinders. I asked him a slew of avocado-related questions, which I'd brainstormed the night before with Emery, my 13-year-old son and a huge Robert Irvine fan. Read on for Chef Irvine's answers, including off-the cuff recipes for an avocado martini and an avocado panna cotta.

A note to blogger friends about interviewing celebrities: You're only going to get a few minutes. Go in prepared. Know what you want to talk about and move the conversation there. Otherwise you'll get the prepared promotional comments from the press release - and that's boring for you, your audience and the celebrity.

(Interested in more of my celebrity chef encounters? Here you go: Giada De Laurentiis, Alice Waters, Curtis Stone, Scott Conant, Claire Robinson, Lucinda Scala Quinn)

That's one big avocado - almost as big as Robert Irvine's biceps

Erika: Why avocados?

Robert Irvine: Avocados are a great healthy food, with lots of vitamins and good fats. Why use mayonnaise on a sandwich when you can cream avocado with yogurt and spices and use that instead? Add avocado to a boring BLT and it's creamy and delicious.

Erika: You've pledged to eat avocado every day for 85 days. Do you have your menu planned out?

Robert Irvine: I don't. I travel 330 days a year and eat every two and a half hours - I'm a big guy. I always carry a fork, little bottles of spices, and Sriracha [hot sauce]. I eat what I feel like eating. I'll be documenting my 85 days of avocado on Twitter and recipes will be posted on the Subway Facebook page.

Chef Robert Irvine making "Add-vocado" sandwiches at Subway in Universal City, CA

Erika: You grew up in England. Did you ever have avocados as a boy?

Robert Irvine: No, never. I had my first avocado on a cruise ship; I was 14, traveling with the Sea Cadets, and I'd been raised on steak and kidney pie and fish and chips. I thought, what is this? The chef taught me about avocados and told me to add lime juice.

Erika: Have you ever climbed an avocado tree?

Robert Irvine: No.

Erika: Feel free to stop by my house and climb mine. My 10-year-old climbs it all the time. That's how we get the avocados at the top.

Robert Irvine: [Laughs] I'd love to!

Erika: What's your favorite way to eat an avocado?

Robert Irvine: Blend vanilla yogurt, mustard, sriracha, lime juice and paprika with avocado and layer it on bread. [I expressed skepticism about the vanilla yogurt.] Yes, vanilla yogurt. I make a sweet potato bread pudding with cinnamon Tabasco ice cream at my restaurant, and when people hear that they make the same noises you just did. Trust me. It's delicious.

Erika: What's the most gourmet avocado dish you've had?

Robert Irvine: Avocado souffle, served with onion chutney. It's the best thing I've ever had.

Erika: Where did you have that avocado souffle?

Robert Irvine: In my restaurant, of course.

Erika: Name your three favorite sandwiches with avocado.

Robert Irvine: BLT; chipotle steak; turkey with bacon. They're all on the Subway menu.

Erika: Any ideas for avocados in cocktails?

Robert Irvine: I'd make a cucumber avocado martini. Juice the cucumber and puree the avocado. Mix those together and make a martini. Add a little tabasco. Garnish with diced seedless cucumber and little Parisian balls of avocado.

Erika: If you were going to open a restaurant that served avocados in every dish, what would you call it?

Robert Irvine: Let's see....The Add-Vocado Pit. I think it would work! Someone asked me once about a restaurant that only does eggs - turns out there's one in Chicago that does $3 million a year in eggs. As long as you're creative and consistent, I truly believe you can succeed with a restaurant like that.

Erika: If you were competing on Chopped and got avocado in your dessert basket, what would you make?  
Robert Irvine: I'd do avocado panna cotta. Pureed avocado with eggs, cream and sugar, with gelatin added to form a mousse. I'd make a cold salad with diced avocados, fresh mint, kiwi, strawberries or cherries, and I'd serve that on top of the panna cotta sprinkled with a little black pepper. That's pretty good for off the cuff, hey? That actually sounds amazing. I'm going to make that next week for sure.

Erika: When you do, be sure to reference this conversation.

Robert Irvine: You know I will.

Erika: You were married last month [to professional wrestler Gail Kim]. Were avocados on the menu at your wedding reception?

Robert Irvine: Yes! There was avocado on Chef Morimoto's sushi and Michael Chiarello's salad. And also avocado with oysters: a blanched lettuce leaf wrapped around a raw oyster with avocado, onion and mignonette.

Erika: Guacamole: How do you make yours?

Robert Irvine: I score the avocado flesh and put in bowl. Then I add fresh tomatoes, skinned and seeded; red onion; cilantro; lime juice; Tabasco or Sriracha; and salt and pepper. That's it.

Erika: I have to ask. Do you read any food blogs?

Robert Irvine: I read anything where my name pops up. Even when someone says I'm mean, I like to respond - I like to educate people about what I do. There's a lot of great writing on blogs. I think a lot of blog writers should be syndicating and writing for bigger audiences.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How to make croutons

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I make homemade croutons every week. In fact, I buy extra bread specifically for croutons. Croutons get my family to eat more vegetables. Homemade croutons garnish every salad and float atop every soup I serve.


Who am I kidding? Here's why we go through so many croutons: because we eat them standing up at the counter straight from the baking sheet. Homemade croutons are one of the most delicious snacks known to humankind. They're crunchy and salty. You won't be able to stop licking your lips. Or your fingers.

Homemade croutons are exponentially better than store-bought croutons, and they're extremely easy to make. In fact, making croutons seems so basic to me that I wondered whether it even warranted a recipe. I asked my Facebook friends and they said yes, they would welcome a post on how to make croutons. So here we are. 

My favorite bread for croutons is La Brea Bakery rosemary olive oil bread, which, conveniently, I get at my local Costco. I like sturdy croutons with a good hefty chew, and the sturdier the bread, the sturdier the croutons. But you can really make croutons out of any kind of bread. More delicate bread like challah or brioche yields a dainty crouton. Dense, hefty bread makes solid nuggets. Play around and see what you like.

Tips: Leave the crusts on. Don't use your best olive oil. Cut the cubes of bread small enough that you won't break your teeth on the finished croutons. And make more than you think you need.

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Homemade croutons
Turn extra bread into salty, oil-slicked croutons in less than half an hour. Use them to dress up salad or soup if you can keep yourself from eating them straight from the oven.
  • 1 loaf rustic bread (try sourdough, French bread, Italian bread or La Brea Bakery rosemary olive oil loaf)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3/4 tsp garlic salt (substitute 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp granulated garlic and 1/4 tsp dried parsley)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.Cut the loaf of bread into 1/2-inch cubes. Spread the cubes of bread on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle the oil over the bread, then sprinkle the garlic salt on top. Using your hands, toss the bread cubes until they are evenly coated with the oil and garlic salt.Bake the croutons approximately 20 minutes, until they are a light golden brown (start checking after 15 minutes). Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let the croutons cool on the baking sheet. Store in an airtight container or zip-top bag up to 1 week. If you keep them longer you'll notice that the oil will develop an off taste.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: approximately 6 cups

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Growing tomatoes in Santa Monica

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I've had bad luck growing tomatoes. So this year I'm experimenting and growing them in bags of "paydirt" (you know, the kind of dirt you have to pay for).

As a rule, everything grows in southern California, but I'm close enough to the beach that our summers have a significant amount of "June Gloom." Fog and chilly mist don't do much for tomatoes. Or for zucchini, for that matter. I have some big trees in my yard, too, so when the sun does decide to shine, the planting beds don't see as much of it as they should. And no matter how much I amend, my soil is crap. Every year I plant zucchini and tomatoes hopefully, and every year they get mildew, fungus, rot, and other ailments that kill them before I get much of a crop.

So this year I'm planting my tomatoes directly in the bags of dirt. I poked drainage holes in the bottom, cut slits in the top, and stuck the plants in. I put them in a sunny spot that's still out of the way of most backyard soccer games. The plants won't dry out as quickly, they're somewhat protected from weeds, and I know the dirt is high quality.

So far they look happy. I'll keep you posted.