Monday, November 29, 2010


The only thing that makes this paella is the presence of saffron and seafood. I didn't bake it. I didn't use hardly any vegetables at all, just leftover mussels and shrimp from bouillabaisse night. But I think that's actually the point of rustic-dishes-turned-national treasures--they fill bellies by using up the leftovers or the produce and meat about to go bad. The working class perfected dishes like pasta, bouillabaisse or paella, and now those dishes are the dishes that visitors eat when they travel to those countries.

So on this dark evening in my lonesome apartment, I'm chomping down reheated paella that reminisces of the sea even though I live about as far from the ocean as one could possibly get. It's pretty good. It doesn't get this cold in Southern Spain where I lived for fourth months and where I first tried paella. My paella is not as good as real Spanish paella, but I'm tempted to think that's more a matter of geography and my serious lack of a pitcher of sangria rather than in the quality of the chef.

This time while eating paella I'm listening to "Where are you Christmas?" and tossing up lights willy-nilly around my apartment in attempt to infuse the space with a seasonal glow. In Portugal, a memorable time I feasted on paella, I was at a tiny restaurant, one with 10 tables or fewer, with my friend Myra. It was evening but still light and hot and humid. We shared a pitcher of sangria. I got fantastically drunk like you only can when you don't plan on it. I started talking about what if someone could cultivate gigantic peas, ones the size of, say, a tennis ball. The chef at the restaurant sent over an aperatif, like I needed another drink, before we walked out onto the cobbled streets of Lagos to find our friends en route from Lisbon. It all seems so exotic, that life I led. It was exotic, it was.
Easy Paella:
1/2 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bell pepper, diced
handful peas
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
generous pinch saffron
1 cup rice
2 cups chicken stock
assorted meats and seafood including but not limited to chicken, rabbit, chorizo, shrimp, lobster, mussels, scallops, cockles--just make sure this is all pre-cooked before using this recipe variation
salt and pepper to taste

Saute the onion and garlic in olive oil for five minutes. Add the bell pepper, peas and tomatoes and saffron and pan fry for 2 to 3 three minutes. Add the rice, stir to coat with oil. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer. Add the meat and seafood. If you're making authentic paella, you should put it in the oven at 375 right now. But otherwise, just let the rice cook as is. Serve hot.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

An Homage to Mussels

Bouillabaisse: The recipe and the name of this classic Provincial dish sound complicated. I read through Julia Childs' instructions multiple times and even read the version from my On Cooking textbook. It's actually quite simple. You make the stock, then you pour it over seafood. That's it. Brilliant. But the stock has to be really freaking good and so does the seafood. This stock was so-so. To be honest, I expected more out of the saffron. More of an Indian-spice quality. Spiciness that kicks you in the face with flavor. This was more about the mussels, which is something I'm more than happy to let take center stage.

I just love mussels. They're so salty, tasting of exactly where they came from just like wine. There's this excitement about cooking them, how you have to keep them alive until they're cooked and how they pop open with the steam from a little bit of white wine revealing their salty flesh. They stay stubbornly clamped shut even under the threat of certain death. They bathe in fresh water for a few hours, spitting out the sand you don't want to clamp down on mid bite. To their lack of mind, it may be jolly sitting in some water, getting a good cleaning under a brush. Maybe it's the wine that does the wooing. The kettle, it's just like a spa: The mussels go into the steam room with a bit of vino and don't ever come out. Really, I couldn't think of a better way to die than in a bath of Riesling.
I made the bouillabaisse and roasted vegetables for some friends on Monday night. I can think of no better way to usher in cool weather and dark evenings than a cozy dinner with friends followed by a food-induced coma on the couch. No, there could be nothing better. Maybe except taking a swim in a vat of wine.

Bouillabaisse: from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
1 medium onion, diced
1 leek, sliced
1/2 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon parsley
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/8 teasponn fennel
2 pinches saffron
1/2 teaspoon dried orange peel
1 quart clam juice
1 1/2 quarts water

1/2 cup spaghetti pasta, broken into 2-inch pieces
2 pounds mussels, already cooked
1 pound shrimp or assorted fish, already cooked

Saute the onion and leeks in the olive oil until tender. Add the garlic and tomatoes. Saute another five minutes. Add the clam juice and water and the rest of the ingredients except the pasta and seafood. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Strain off the stock and save it. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Bring the stock to a boil and cook the pasta. Place the seafood in bowls and ladle the stock over the top of them. Season with parmesan cheese and the awesome rouille, recipe follows.

Rouille: from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
1 small can green chili peppers, diced
3 drops Tabasco sauce
1 potato, cooked in the stock of the previous recipe
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon thyme
4 tablespoons olive oil

Place chile peppers, Tabasco, potato, garlic and thyme in food processor and pulse until smooth. Add the olive oil slowly until it becomes the consistency of a mayonnaise. Season with salt or pepper if needed. Spoon into soup to season broth. Also tastes great on bread.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Chocolate Scones

The saga continues. This has got to be what attempt number 5,283 in my apparently lifelong goal to make the perfect scone. This time I busted out the professional equipment. I had the pastry blender churning away. I used one of my full collection of 10 biscuits cutters, available in various sizes. The bench scrapper came out when I cleaned off the table. I used my pastry brush to paint on the egg wash--that brush works like a dream. And the silicon baking mat led to even baking and easy cleaning. Yet still I fall short. To be fair, my standard is perfection.

I love scones for their balence between flaky and chewy. They aren't moist or rich like a muffin can be, but they shouldn't be too hard like a biscotti. They should be just barely sweet, just barely. The perfect scone, I know I've written about it before, would be one like the blueberry version I ate at the Boston Public Library. Flaky and crisp on the outside, dense but crumbly on the inside and bursting with blueberries. I'd hate to hear that the scone they had came from a mix. The fruit and nut scones at Delice are quite good. A close second.

I'm being a little too hard on these chocolate scones, like a parent who's ashamed their B+ student didn't land an A. The chocolate chips lend a great bite, and they aren't too sweet. I just want some more flake. That's my fault. I should have blended in the butter a touch more. I shouldn't have been so afraid of turning out dry dough onto my table. Maybe that's been my mistake all along. Scones can be quite the mess. Instead of fearing the mess or trying to minimize it, perhaps I should embrace the mess because it's that crumbly, floury, buttery mess that is the scone.

Chocolate Scones: from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
2 1/4 cups flour
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teapsoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt, cold and cut into small pieces
10 tablespoons butter
5 ounces semisweet chocolate morsels
1 egg plus one egg yolk
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons cream

Whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder and baking soda and salt. Mix the butter into the dry mixture with a pastry blender until it forms large crumbs with a few bigger chunks (but not too many). In a smaller bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup plus one tablespoon cream and egg. Using a spatula, incorporate the egg into the crumbs, stirring until it just comes together.

Turn dough out on a floured surface and press into a one-inch thick square. Cut into three-inch squares with a knife or pastry wheel or into rounds with a biscuit cutter. Arrange on baking sheet one inch apart. Makes 20. Freeze for an hour or up to a week. Bake at 375 for 25 to 30 minutes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Perfect Roasted Vegetables

I love vegetables. Love them. I've come a long way from hiding broccoli under my plate or trying to feed it to the dog. My mom and I used to go tit for tat over finishing a serving of steamed vegetables (she would always win, but it was painful for all parties). My sister or I or both would be sitting in solitude on our booster seat at the kitchen table long after the dishes had been put away, sulking over soggy carrots. We would plug our nose, gulp down the last bite and chase it with a chug of milk.

As Chef O'Donnell said in class on the first day of class, "Animals don't want to be eaten--they run away, but vegetables were made to be consumed." And they can put on quite a show, even with the simplest of accoutrements. For example, these roasted root vegetables. To me, they might as well be candy. When we made them in class on roasting/baking day, I couldn't stop eating them, diving in with my fingers. Divinely crunchy but densely chewy. A faint sweetness from the beets and carrots. Earthy substance straight from the ground. These bite-size morsels go down oh so easily.

These vegetables need little help to coax them into deliciousness, just some heat, olive oil, salt and pepper, and a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme. After peeling and chopping, I sat down to play spider solitaire (a dangerous addiction I'm now fessing up to) for 45 minutes until they were fork tender and golden brown. I took them to a Sunday-night potluck with friends where we shared South African fare from Robyn, squash and red-bean salad from Sarah and Matthew, lamb kabobs with apricot sauce, cheesey potatoes, and cranberry-crumble pie in a dimly-lit home whilst listening to records. There could be no better way to usher in the shorter days of winter.

Roasted Root Vegetables:
1/4 pound parsnips
1/4 pound carrots
1/4 pound beets
1/4 pound turnips
1/4 pound red potatoes
1/4 pound celery root
olive oil
salt and pepper
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme

Preheat oven to 400. Peel and coarsely chop the root vegetables. Arrange on baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add rosemary and thyme sprigs. Bake until fork tender, about 40 minutes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What I Should Have Done

I should have just stuck with what I knew for yesterday's Culinary Foundations final. My Salade Nicoise turned out, well, I think OK would be generous. It was fine, totally edible. Except the potato--that was raw.

It's weird that my first cooking class in school is already over. I'm going to miss going on Tuesday, if only for a couple weeks until the next quarter begins. I really enjoyed cooking with all the nine others who made it through Chef Tim O'Donnell's course in intimidation. It's possible he might be a little disappointed to know that by the end of things, his tough critiques didn't phase anyone. "The sanitation was unacceptable." He was right, not enough gloves or hand washing. The plating, not up to standard. Yep. The salmon, either overdone or underdone.

When it came time to do the final yesterday, tension was pretty high with most the class. My friend Jess probably didn't crack a smile the entire four hours until her plate was turned in and she had her stellar grade. Chef O'Donnell said he would pay to eat her salad. That is not what he said about mine.

After chopping and dicing away at the most ginormous carrots I have ever seen (we're talking 1-foot long and a four- or five-inch diameter--they tasted awful), we got to the cooking part of the final. Hard-boiling an egg, boiling and then searing a potato, blanching and the sauteing green beans, searing a salmon, making dressing, etc. I got stalled out on the egg. I had to make five eggs before one came out right. Five. Five eggs. The first one cracked in the water immediately. The second, third and fourth weren't cooked all the way through. I had spent an entire hour trying to get a perfect egg before I finally peeled and sliced open the fifth egg to reveal a perfectly done hard-cooked egg. I did end up charring some of my green beans, but Chef had mercy on me there, and I ended up with an 81 percent. He asked if I was happy with my grade. I said yes because I can't imagine not agreeing with something Chef said. I think a low B is what I deserved, I do wish I had done better.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Coping with Cupcakes

Some people eat to feel better, I cook. It usually works even when things barely come together in batter in the same way they barely come together in life.

Saturday Amanda and I hosted a potluck. I get so excited to cook food for people that I'm usually planning out my entree weeks ahead of time. This time for whatever reason I wasn't inspired by anything except the week-old frosting taking up half the top shelf in the fridge. So I started on almond cupcakes but a few hours before the party. And let me tell you, things were touch and go for a while there. Instead of using room-temperature butter, I used three blocks of rock-hard butter straight from the fridge. The butter and sugar don't "cream" well that way. The nine-horsepower KitchenAid mixer worked that butter so hard that the bowl got lodged pretty firmly in the mixer. Amanda's boyfriend had to remove it. And the batter was so thick that incorporating the frothy egg whites into it without breaking them was nigh impossible, yet somehow, the batter came together creamy and rich. While the cupcakes baked, I worked some magic on the frosting, which had seemed like enough to cover 24 cupcakes when I glanced in the bowl when grabbing the orange juice every morning. Either way, I conquered the cupcakes, all frosted and topped with almonds by 6:55 p.m. I even had time to vacuum the spider webs out of the back porch.

Somehow, just like I always do, I pulled it together enough to sit down for a moment and enough a moist almond-flavored cupcake before the fun started. And I think: I can't possibly be the only one out there who barely pulls it together enough to appear presentable. No, I'm not. I use cake to cope. I use cake and friends and Friends (the TV show) and family and faith. Sometimes, though usually not all at the same time, they fail me. And sometimes they come together at 6:55.

(this photo accurately represents how great the party was and how messy, another great analogy for life.)
Almond Cupcakes: adapted from Martha Stewart (serves 24)
3 cups flour
2 teapsoons baking powder
1 teapsoon salt
3 sticks butter, room temperature
2 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond
1 cup milk
8 large egg whites,

Preheat oven to 350. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and 2 cups of sugar until fluffy. Mix in the vanilla and almond extracts. Add the flour in three batches, alternating with adding part of the milk each time and mixing til just combined. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add a scant 1/4 cup of sugar and beat until glossy. Fold into the batter, being careful not to deflate egg whites. Fill cupcake liners three-quarters of the way full with batter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Frost and serve.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Salade Nicoise

Our Culinary Foundations practical final is next week and includes a testing of knife cuts (julienne, macedoine, brunoise, batonet and other pretentious French words) and mastery of the Salade Nicoise. Our class did a warm-up for the final on Tuesday. I thought it went fairly well (my salad was way over-dressed and the potatoes were over-cooked), Chef O'Donnell thought a little differently. We botched the sanitation part to a certain degree, and pretty much everything needed work. Nevertheless, I'll miss our "little" critiques at the end of class when Chef tells us how we can improve (mixed in with a few anecdotes). I've had near mealtdowns in that little room next to the kitchen, but holy crap, I've tasted some awesome food.

The quarter flew by. I never thought my collapsed lung would heal (though it does still bother me on occasion). I'll really miss my classmates. All but one of them are in the chef's apprentice program, while I'm in the bakery/pastry option. I suppose it's likely I'll bond with all my future classmates. That's what happens when people cook and eat together, but still, this was nice. There is still one more anxiety-inducing day of cooking the famous Salade Nicoise. I'm a little nervous, so I thought it best to follow Chef's instructions and practice. Except now I'm a little more freaked out, but only just a little.

Everything did turn out fine in the end. The egg, potatoes and blanched green beans were a little underdone, but that was nothing compared the incredible haze of smoke that poured out when I tried searing the salmon. The saute pan needs to be hot. Nearly smoking hot. Well, some debris had fall at some unknown time under the right-front burner, which, under intense heat, starting smoking like crazy. We're talking fire alarms and a thick haze. I opened the back door to little relief. It got so bad my eyes started watering. But thank god, the salmon did not scorch. We'll probably have a permanent smoke smell in the house, but at least the meal was saved.

Nicoise Salad: serves four

2 eggs, hard boiled
4 tomatoes, sliced into wedges
4 potatoes
large handful green beans
canola oil
4 salmon filets
2 or 3 large handful mixed greens
1 tablespoon basil, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chives, chopped
2 scallions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
salt and pepper
12 Nicoise olives

for dressing:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil

For dressing, whisk mustard and vinegar together. Slowly pour in the oil while whisking until it has thickened.

Place potatoes in a pot of cold, salted water and bring to a boil. Remove when cooked al dente, shock to stop from continuing to cook and slice in half. Blanche and shock the green beans in salted water. Dry and season the salmon with salt and pepper. Sear in a hot skillet with a little canola oil service-side down for 1 to 2 minutes, flip and sear for another minute. Remove from pan. Turn down the heat to medium and place potatoes in saute pan to brown for a few minutes. Add the green beans, olives, shallot and garlice. Toss to coat with oil. Remove from heat quickly. Toss vegetables with salad greens and dressing. Assemble salads and serve.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Lavender Cupcakes

Last week Brian Ferry's photography blog led me once again to inspiration in the form of a London cupcake shop and bakery called Violet. The Interwebs once again brought me something beautiful I never would have come across without it. Violet's owner makes cupcakes with delectable-sounding names like English raspberry, English strawberry and French apricot. I perused every single page of the bakery's site, and even the next day couldn't stop thinking about cupcakes. In my nutrition class on Friday morning, I spent my break looking up tips on adding lavender to baked goods so I could come up with something of my own.

The aromatic lavender has been holding its own in the garden, despite the efforts of nearby too-large tomato plants. Whenever I'm out in the yard, I take a moment to fondle the lavender. Just brushing it with my fingers leaves a clean, sweet scent behind. It reminds me of the New Mexican dessert where wild sage and lavender thrive alongside tumbleweed.

Of course I've heard of lavender in perfume, but lavender as an herb is something relatively new to me. I think it started with some shortbread cookies. Flaky, buttery and suddenly fresh with flowers. These lavender-lemon cupcakes are my first effort. A valient try, I'd say. I didn't have much blooming in the garden, but enough to make due. I added the lavender as I would an herb, and its flavor was isolated to bites of cupcake that actually had bits of flower in them. But those bites just burst with flavor once the flower's fragence opened up. I think I would try making a lavender-infused simple syrup next time to coax the herb to take over the entire cupcake.

Lavender Cupcakes: makes 18
1 cup butter plus more to grease pans
1 1/2 cups flour (sifted)
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
6 large eggs, separated
2/3 cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon fresh lavender flowers
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 350.
In a medium or large bowl, beat together the sugar and egg yolks until light and fluffy with the whisk attachment (because I have that now!). Add the lemon juice and zest if you have it and want to use it and the vanilla and mix well. Using the paddle attachment, gradually mix the almonds and then the flour into the batter until combined. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the salt and the last 3 tablespoons of sugar. Beat until stiff but not dry. Set aside.

Melt the butter. Fold the butter into the batter using a spatula. Then gently fold in the egg whites, being careful not to deflate the whites. Pour batter cupcake sleeves. Bake 20 minutes or until golden brown.