Monday, December 13, 2010

Bottega and a Fool’s Errand, With Rolls

My friend Carol and I made a plan to go to the Napa valley and I thought we should try Bottega, which Virginia and I had ditched in favor of Mulvaney’s in Sacramento. Bottega is in Yountville, a really pretty, really small town right smack in the Napa Valley. It mainly consists of great restaurants, wine and shopping. All in all, not a bad deal!

Hostess Station, Bottega

About Bottega, it’s an attractive place, with lots of covered outdoor seating and a fireplace. However, it was a pretty cool day and absolutely no one was eating out in the patio area. In the dining room the tables are really close together; we were seated next to two women who were eating smallish plates of risotto with porcini mushrooms. Of course, as I often do, I asked them what they were having and how they liked their food. They said it was great but they were on a wine tasting tour and I suspect feeling pretty relaxed, so who knows. I did found out those bowls of rice cost $25 each!!! But I was polite and didn’t get snarky.

Veal Burger with Parmigiano Fries

What looked great on the menu was the parmigiano French fries. Couldn’t resist; they were included on two dishes, the veal burger and the skirt steak. The server recommended the veal burger so we both went for it. Our meal arrived and first thing we dove into the fries. They were really good, hot, cooked through with a fair amount of parmigiano cheese and a little parsley. So far so good. But wait – the veal burger was so bland it screamed out for mustard. So why didn’t I request it? A question for the ages. I did mention the fatal blandness of my burger to our server and asked for a suggestion on how to goose the flavor. I settled on garlic aioli, which helped a very little bit. Man, I should have asked for mustard!!!!!!!!!

I opted not to have wine since this was Thanksgiving weekend and I had drunk wine on turkey day and eaten like a pig. But Carol did and the poor dear got them to let her taste three red wines before she settled on a passable one. The problem is they serve their RED WINES a little CHILLED. Don’t know why they do this, but neither of us is enchanted with chilled red. Ugh. I saw one man warming his wine glass with his hands – and it was a white wine!

I will say, however, the atmosphere is nice, the wait staff is warm, friendly and helpful. Maybe I would have liked the skirt steak better, or anything else for that matter.

In an earlier post I mentioned my desire to find Mast Brothers chocolate. I stubbornly refuse to order a dozen expensive bars online so I had determined I would drop in at Bardessono Hotel & Spa in Yountville to see if I could snag one. Bardessono is a beautiful place, with very clean lines in the Japanese way, very peaceful. The staff was so nice, encouraged us to walk around the property and showed us one of their rooms. Carol and I looked in the bar and the restaurant, and the menu looked delicious. We drank water with cucumber slices and generally had a heavenly time. Unfortunately their little spa store had been out of Mast Brothers bars for a month so I was left out in the chocolate cold. However, the really nice young woman in the shop suggested we go to the French Laundry because she heard they had it. And since I had seen them listed on the Mast Brothers website I said okay, let’s go there. What was I thinking?

Water Feature at Bardesonno

A Fool’s Errand

We headed for The French Laundry, a famous restaurant, hard to get into and also famously expensive, let’s say a cool $250 a head for the chef’s nine course tasting menu. I do have it on good authority the food is amazing. As soon as Carol and I walked in the door I knew this was a fruitless mission; the lack of candy bars lying around was only one hint. But I strode in and headed straight for the station where two men waited. As there was no greeting forthcoming (how strange! how rude!) I had to speak first. Diving into the deep end I briefly explained my mission and they looked at me like I was nuts. Could it have been the lack of furs, diamonds and 6” heels or the mission we had chosen to accept? I’ll never know for sure. But when the French guy said “we make our own chocolat,” I just couldn’t resist. I replied “you mean you take whole cacao, grind it up, make chocolate liquor…” Well, no, he allowed, they didn’t, and I had succeeded in pricking a very pompous balloon. Yee hah! So we left empty handed and moved on to much friendlier turf, Dean & DeLuca in St. Helena where I snagged a Vosges Red Fire Bar. Unfortunately it was sugar free and not as creamy as the regular sugar laden bar, yet nicely acceptable.

With Rolls

If you are at all into making your own holiday rolls, these are delicious and not at all that hard to make. You can make them in advance and freeze them if you wish. They are still wonderful. The recipe originally came from a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook; my mother gave me the recipe years ago. It called for shortening (ugh, for many reasons) which I have changed to butter. I use a stand mixer with the dough hook and even knead the dough with the mixer. Here you are.

2 packages yeast (1/2 ounce)
¼ cup warm water
¾ cup milk
½ cup (1 cube) butter, cut up
½ cup sugar
2 tsp salt
4 ½ - 4 ¾ cups sifted all purpose flour
3 beaten eggs

Put yeast and warm water (about 100 degrees) in mixer bowl. Gently warm milk and butter until butter is melted. Cool to lukewarm. Add one cup flour to yeast along with eggs and mix. Beat in milk/butter and sugar and salt. Add 3 more cups flour and mix well; add enough flour to make a soft dough. Let mixer knead dough on a lower speed (2 on a Kitchenaid) for 5-8 minutes, or until dough is glossy.

Here’s the secret to great tasting bread: spray a container with oil and dump the dough in it. Cover and put in the refrigerator overnight. It’s called retarding because of the cold, but it will definitely rise and in the process develop lots of  flavor.

Wedges with Bench Scraper

Turn out your dough and divide into 3 equal parts. Roll out each part into a 9” circle. Brush with melted butter. Cut into 12 wedges and roll up each wedge starting with the wide end (stretching out the wide part a little). With the little tip end on the underside, arrange on a baking sheet (you will need 2) and brush them with butter. Cover with plastic. Let rise about 45 minutes. Bake at 400 degrees for 10-12 minutes on top rack. Keep an eye on them, they over brown easily. Enjoy.

Finished Product

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Heading into the Deep South

The deep south of California, that is. Paul and decided to go back to San Clemente, which is in the very southern end of Orange County, almost to San Diego County, right on the ocean. Since neither of us likes to stay in motels long term, we rented a sweet condo with a view of the pier and just a 2 minute walk to the beach.

I’m here to tell you about the restaurants we tried, so let’s start with Harris Ranch, on the I5 corridor at Hwy 198, outside of Coalinga. Paul had been dreaming for days about having a steak for dinner so Harris Ranch was a must stop heading south. They have two restaurants, the fancy one and the more casual one, which we chose. Paul had a ribeye steak with roasted yams. Even though he ordered it medium well, it was tender, juicy and flavorful. Those guys know how to cook a steak, as well as grow a great steak. I had the Blue Smoke personal pizza, a flatbread crust number with gorgonzola cheese and steak strips on top. So delicious, with a smoky barbecue flavor. Harris Ranch is an oasis in that boring drive, I recommend stopping for a great meal.

Cafe Rae

The day we arrived in San Clemente  Paul and I were wandering around on El Camino Real, looking for a place to stop and eat. He spotted Café Rae, which had good vibes. Inside it was small and filled with people and colorful batik hangings  (for sale of course – the hangings, not the people). And what a great menu! I ordered the Café Rae Salad, with baby greens, tomatoes, goat cheese, apples, caramelized walnuts and lemon-dijon vinaigrette. I added chicken and ooh la la was it ever fresh, flavorful and just plain wonderful. I couldn’t stop praising the food. Just go. They’re at 1421 N. El Camino Real in a tiny strip mall. You can’t miss the extremely colorful storefront!

Cafe Rae

I asked an acquaintance of mine who is from the area where I can get a fabulous meal. She suggested Sapphire in Laguna Beach, one of her foodie husband’s favorite places. So I made a reservation for Sunday evening and then proceeded to search for reviews. They were mixed, mainly on service, but the menu looked so good that we dived in. Sapphire is only a block from the beach, and since we opted to sit outside we had a nice view of the ocean. I often order 1 or 2 appetizers or a small plate and call it good but it was my birthday and the pan-seared beef tenderloin with lobster ravioli and creamed spinach was calling my name. The beef was cooked medium and was so tender, moist and flavorful that I was in heaven. Paul had the pan seared ocean trout with miso glazed eggplant and stir fried udon. Wow. He said it was great, and it looked delicious, but I didn’t taste his food and he stayed out of mine. We were happy as we were. They have a great wine list and I decided to have the ’05 Stanton Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. I wanted to go a little nuts so I had the half carafe! And I drank most of it! It was one of the smoothest, richest, most decadent cabernets I have ever had the exquisite pleasure to drink. And I felt perfectly fine the next day. Yeah! I just wish I could afford to buy a bottle! Paul and I shared the Rocky Road Ice Cream Pie and it was delicious, with little marshmallows on top. A perfect ending, with coffee. This place is expensive, but if you go to the area and want to experience a special, fabulous meal, go there!

Outdoor Fireplace Sapphire

Sapphire also has a little gourmet food store next to the restaurant and I just had to go in. I was extremely happy to see Jamón Iberico in the deli case. Now Jamón Iberico is a very special ham from Spain, and is like prosciutto. The piggies from whence it springs live free range in oak forests and eat lots and lots of acorns. This pig has a high omega 3 content in its fat and is highly prized. The leg is displayed in Spanish markets and very thin slices are sliced off and sold like prosciutto. I saw it for sale in a market on College Ave. in Oakland, for a jaw-dropping $185 a pound! I whined about the price and was so shell shocked I didn’t even consider buying a slice to try. At Sapphire I was happy to see the price is $98.99, though still ridiculously expensive. So I decided to buy a couple of slices, as well as some Prosciutto d’Parma at a paltry $26.95 a pound to do a little comparison tasting. Prosciutto d’Parma is wonderful, but next to the Jamón Iberico it doesn’t stand a chance. The Jamón Iberico tastes richer, with a deeper flavor; however, it’s not four times better! I’m grateful for the opportunity to try it and will dream Jamón dreams for a time.

Jamon and Prosciutto

I wanted to drive to Carlsbad and look around. It’s a nice little town south of San Clemente, well on the way to San Diego. There’s a sweet little neighborhood of restaurants and shops and therein I spied Vigilucci’s on State Street. It had delicious vibes and smelled good too so in we strolled for lunch. It’s a pretty place, very Italian looking. Paul just wanted vegetable soup but I was eyeballing the Panini portion of the menu. I chose the panino with prosciutto di parma, grilled portobella, arugula and sautéed porcini mushrooms on ciabatta. The bread was crispy on the outside, easy to bite into and the prosciutto and mushrooms were so savory and juicy. No need for cheese, which is what I generally think of when I think of panini. Paul loved his soup and I made him eat some of my panino, which also impressed. When we stopped in Encinitas, not far from Carlsbad, I spied another Vigilucci’s, and it turns out there are 7 restaurants in the San Diego area. Fantastico!


While in Encinitas Paul had a strong craving for a burger. He googled great burgers on his Blackberry, which led us to Angelo’s. Angelo’s has Greek, Mexican and American cuisine. Very scary. (How about doing one thing well?) And it was in two small dingy buildings separated by a drive thru lane. A poster on Yelp crowed about the onion rings so we ordered them and split a monster bacon cheese burger. Now the burger wasn’t a monster but it was good. The onion rings, however, were awful. They were greasy and bland and we both prefer our rings dipped in cornmeal, not flour. So, if you happen to go to Encinitas and happen to want a burger in an old joint that serves 3 cuisines, go ahead, drop in at Angelo’s at 608 S. Coast Highway and get the burger. Just don’t get the onion rings. Or do.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mulvaney’s and Tricked Out Spinach

My friend Quan and I had made plans to try out Bottega, Michael Chiarello’s restaurant in Yountville in the Napa Valley. Chiarello is a hot chef; he placed 2nd in the first Top Chef Masters and I had wanted to try out his food. And then Quan chickens out – because Hwy 12, the Highway of Death, is such a mess. And when I told her Paul and I had nearly been hit head-on by a complete idiot on the way home from Sonoma, well that sealed the deal. Besides, she really wanted to go to Mulvaney’s at the B & L in midtown Sacramento.

Peeking in Mulvaneys

Mulvaney’s is in a historic brick building on 19th Street at L. It looks like an old firehouse. When we walked in we were welcomed by the smell of wood smoke, a good sign. Upon checking out the menu I was happy to see small plates as well as big hoggy plates; I like small plates. We both decided to go for small plates; actually I had an appetizer and a petite plate. The smoked salmon with Irish brown bread and trimmings like capers, onions and egg was delicious. Very lox-y. And the bread was fresh and tender. I was very satisfied but soldiered on slowly and decadently.

Fois Gras

I’m a big fan of fois gras, or the fatty liver of a duck. Now, ducks love to eat like crazy and they are treated many times better than those poor factory chickens that you probably eat. Anyway, there were two little fois lobes, seared on the outside and kind of creamy on the inside. Not liver-y tasting at all. With fresh figs and toast. Delicious. Okay, now I’m full.

But wait, I didn’t eat small portions so I could skip dessert! They have a delicious looking dessert menu and being a chocolate lover I had to have the Vahlrona Ding Dong. It was rich and decadent. It actually looks like a Hostess Cupcake, as you can see, but exponentially better. It’s flourless and dense and real chocolatey. This ain’t your childhood cupcake!!!

Vahlrona Ding Dong

Mulvaney’s is expensive but if you want to go for a special occasion and really dine, it’s worth it. I love to watch other people’s food go by; the big plates looked enticing. The doublecut pork chop was impressive, as well as the salmon. Try it out and tell me about the big plate you had. Or the small one(s)!

My gift to you: I punched up a low cal spinach dish for company and it was a hit. The unpunched up version is good as well, just leave out the pancetta and pine nuts. Or not. It’s easy and delicious. Enjoy!

Tricked out Spinach

1 ½ tsp olive oil
2 ounces chopped pancetta
¾ cup onions, chopped
2 tsp minced garlic
18 oz baby spinach
¼ tsp table salt
1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
2 tbs toasted pine nuts

Heat oil in a large deep nonstick pot over medium-high heat. Add pancetta and cook until brown and fat is rendered. Pour off excess fat and add onions; cook, stirring often, until light golden and tender, about 7 to 8 minutes.

Add garlic; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add spinach and salt; cook, tossing, until spinach wilts, about 2 to 4 minutes. Add tomatoes; cook, stirring, until tomatoes soften, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Remove from heat and drain off any extra liquid; stir in feta and pine nuts. Yields about 4 servings at 3/4 cup per serving.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sonoma Roaming


Paul and I decided to go for a Labor Day road trip to Sonoma and roam around. We/I hadn't been there in quite a while and don't really know a whole lot about it. Sonoma of course is in one of the major wine producing areas of northern California and it really is pretty country. I was musing on my childhood when California wine wasn't very good (I guess - I wouldn't have known) but yet there was an ad campaign for Napa Sonoma Mendocino, probably selling jug wine. I had no idea where Napasonomamendocino was but it sounded good.

So we headed out on the horrible Hwy 12 and I just had to stop in Fairfield at the Sepay Groves olive oil store so I could pick up some of their organic extra virgin olive oil. If you go in you'll get a real education on olive oil as well as evoo tastes.


The Red Grape Storefront

When we reached the Town Plaza in Sonoma (you can't miss it - really, it's a big old fashioned square with a park in the middle) I called my friend Virginia to ask here where we should eat. She tried to be helpful but didn't quite get us there. So we parked and started walking around the plaza. Paul spotted The Red Grape and I am so glad he did. We ordered their super thin crispy crust 12" pizza. Super thin crust is wonderful if you count carbs (I don't) or calories (I do). We never agree on what kind to get but they prepare a half and half for us. I wanted the prosciutto, goat cheese and arugula white pizza, real foodie/girlie pizza. Paul wanted the manly man The Works red pizza. We were both very happy. Mine was tangy with rich deep flavors and the pepperiness of arugula. His looked good with the mandatory sausage and pepperoni and peppers. My verdict: go forth and enjoy The Red Grape.

Pizza at the Red Grape

After lunch I was a little sleepy and draggy and wanted a good cappuccino. So I started quizzing the locals about where to go. The upshot was I needed to go to Sunflower Caffe and so we did. It's a cute little place on the Plaza with a really nice area out back. I ordered my cappuccino along with instructions on how I like it and crossed my fingers. It was really good; rich espresso with freshly steamed milk. It was so pretty I took a shot of it with my phone. Love the red cup and saucer. There isn't a Peet's in Sonoma so definitely go to Sunflower Caffe. They have good looking sandwiches too.


Sunflower Caffe Cappuccino

We decided to drive around Sonoma; there are lots of wineries of course. Definitely can't swing a dead cat without hitting a winery country. I caught a fun shot of a wine limo driver relaxing while his guests were in the tasting room whooping it up. Notice his bare feet sticking out of the car.


Wine limo guy taking a nap

The moral of the story: by all means go to the Napa Valley. It's wonderful with excellent restaurants and amazing wines. And the scenery.....ahh. But do go to Sonoma, it deserves to be explored. Especially by me.


Airplane junkyard with grapevines

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Green Bean Summers

I'm going to admit to a dirty little secret. I'm not crazy about green beans in general. That's probably because when I was growing up we ate way too many canned green beans (actually I tried to dodge them). I don't really like the taste of most canned veggies but green beans are the worst. Correction, canned beets are the worst.

But now we are in the Golden Age of local fresh fruits and veggies, often grown in our own back yards, and available at the farmers' markets. And that has changed my bad opinion of that noble bean. My favorite green beans are the Italian baccaccia beans. Unlike blue lakes, the pods are flatter and the peas inside bulge outward. Very distinctive, delicious, and available at farmers' markets.

Currently I love to braise my beans in chopped fresh ripe tomatoes, garlic, seasoning and chicken broth. It takes about 20 minutes based on how tender you want them. Just coarsely chop a couple of medium sized tomatoes and throw in a pan over medium heat. Add a couple or so mashed and chopped cloves of garlic, along with some red pepper flakes for a little heat. Take 2 or 3 big handsful of beans, rinse and snap off the twiggy ends and mound them in your pan. Salt and pepper to taste - raw beans taste flat, so don't be coy with the salt. Add reduced sodium chicken broth to about half way up the beans. Cover, reduce heat somewhat and let braise. Check to make sure you don't run out of liquid and burn the batch! Add some fresh basil near the end if desired.

This is really loosey goosey cooking. Try adding sliced mushrooms, crisp bacon or pancetta, or Italian seasoning. How about some white wine or wine vinegar? I don't use oil but you can throw in some delicious olive oil.

Recently I was talking to an acquaintance in line at the supermarket and she told me she adds potatoes to her green beans. I forgot the rest of what she said but I cubed some potatoes and threw them in and they were delicious. They take longer than beans to cook so give them a few minutes head start before adding the beans.

Now, I want to know what delicious ways you cook fresh green beans. Type it in the comment section at the end of this article and not in Facebook; you will have to go to the blog page if you aren't already there. Tell me your bean story. I really want to know.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chocolate Stories

I have loved chocolate all my life, starting with Hershey bars when I was a kid. And though I've long since moved on from milk chocolate, a Hershey bar is the only approved chocolate bar in s'mores as far as I'm concerned.

A couple of years ago I read an article in one of my food magazines about Ameidi Chocolate. It seems a brother and sister in Italy wanted to start making fabulous chocolate and approached Vahlrona (in France) as a source. Evidently the Frenchies looked down their noses at those Italian bumpkins who couldn't possibly know squat. So the bumpkins went around Vahlrona and snagged some great cacao from the farmers in Venezuela, and aced Vahlrona out in the process.

The author of the article whose name I don't recall, but who was Always Hungry, actually went to Italy to meet and eat chocolate. I wasn't willing to go that far but my curiosity was stimulated. So when Paul and I tried a Thai-ish restaurant on College Ave. in Oakland called Soi Four, we noticed a little place called Bittersweet, as in chocolate. That place is all chocolate all the time. I tried a cup of hot chocolate that was so rich I couldn't finish it but as I was browsing the chocolate bars I clapped eyes on a sampler pack of...Ameidi Chocolate! Including the prized Venezuelan goods. So in spite of the high $13-ish price for a tiny sampler, I figured what the heck and went for it. I nibbled on those little bits for days and yes, it was excellent. However, I am conflicted about eating intense dark chocolate straight up; I really prefer to bake with it and change the taste and texture with dairy and possibly sugar and flour. Of course dark chocolate purists like to take it straight.

When Copia, a former educational center in Napa was still open, I went to quite a few of their events. Death by Chocolate was probably the most decadent, except for maybe the Picnic in Provence where my friend Carol and I flirted shamelessly with Henri the pate purveyor so he would keep plying us with that wonderful artery clogging spread. I'm sure washing it down with French wine made all the difference.

Back to the Death by Chocolate, I was excited about going because Karina Vosges of Vosges Haut Chocolat was going to speak. I was totally disappointed when she had to cancel and I was stuck there with all that chocolate. So last weekend when I was in the checkout line of Dean & Deluca in St. Helena and saw the Vosges bars I was really jazzed. Since I am currently liking chocolate
and chili I grabbed the Red Fire Bar with Mexican ancho and chipotle chillies, Ceylon cinnamon and dark chocolate. Since the bar was 55% cacao it was luxurious and kind of creamy tasting, with a chili bite that isn't burning hot but does leave a pleasant warm and chocolatey sensation in your mouth. Rapture. I want more.

Oh, and there is more. Today I went to World Market here in Stockton and decided to browse the chocolate section; I was surprised and pleased to see some Vosges Haut Chocolat. No Red Fire Bar, but I picked up Mo's Dark Bacon Bar. It has little bits of applewood smoked bacon in it and considering the cost was $5.99 versus $8.50 at Dean & Deluca, well that pushed me over the edge. It is simply delicious with 62% cacao. Three squares will cost you 4 Weight Watchers points as with the Red Fire Bar. Totally worth it on an occasional basis. I've come to realize you can enjoy the foods you love, in moderation, just not every damn day!

There's another chocolate I want to try - Mast Brothers Chocolate. They bill it as American Craft Chocolate and it looked mighty good on the chocolate episode of Foodology on the Food Channel. They're in New York, so you either have to order online or buy it at a store. Luckily, Bardessono, a luxury resort in Yountville carries it so next time I'm passing through I'm going to march right in like I belong there and get me some by golly chocolate. The Masts have a chili choco bar so I probably won't be able to resist. When I finally get my hands on it I'll let you know. You'll be the first. Honest.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Truffling Matter

Ever since Paul and I dined at the glorious Cyrus in Healdsburg 4 years ago I've wanted to go back. But it also created a desire to recreate the white chocolate truffles filled with a soft white chocolate and lime filling that bursts with flavor. Simply divine. I managed to get the recipe and played around with it, yielding poor results, mainly because I couldn't get the premade shells without a lot of expense. I've since learned more about working with chocolate and finally realized what I needed was a silicone mold, which I bought. Seeing it done on Food TV didn't hurt either. I could definitely recreate the lime and white chocolate truffles now, and I will when I see white chocolate that I approve of I'll try it. (I admit I haven't been looking since I prefer dark chocolate.)

Since we occasionally have expired chocolate bars on our hands where I work, it falls to me by default to make something chocolate and fabulous. I hadn't made molded truffles in quite a while so it seemed like a good idea to try it. I have my silicone mold with 16 cavities (little molds) for molding chocolate, butter, whatever you like. Each cavity holds a tablespoon of chocolate and this recipe yielded 48 truffles. If you don't want to make that many just cut the ingredient amounts in half.

You have to pour your melted chocolate into the cavities and then pour it back into the bowl of melted goodness, leaving a shell to hold your ganache filling. When you start getting to where you can't fill all the cavities at once, just pour chocolate back into the bowl, then pour it into the remaining cavities. Repeat until you are done.

I used Monin raspberry syrup to gussy up the ganache because raspberry and chocolate are divine together. However, you can use liqueurs like Cointreau, Kahlua, etc. or other flavorings. Hazelnut would be fabulous. Add until it tastes good to you, a little at a time. I added a tablespoon of syrup, stirred, tasted, and repeated until I had what I wanted.

Chocolate lore: chocolate has protein in it. Overheating will cause the protein to clump up, get tough, and be unusable. Also, don't let water touch melted chocolate. It will cause it to "seize up", become a lumpy mess and become unusable. Other than that, have fun.

Ganache: hot cream poured over chopped chocolate and stirred to make a delicious
filling for your truffles.

Bittersweet Chocolate and Raspberry Truffles
Yields 48 truffles

20 ounces bittersweet chocolate, divided
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
5 tablespoons Monin raspberry syrup

Chop up the chocolate and divide into 2 bowls: 10 ounces in a mixing bowl and 10 ounces in a steel bowl. Set the steel bowl over a pan of gently simmering water and melt, stirring to mix. Turn heat to low.

For ganache, bring heavy cream to a simmer and pour over the 10 ounces of chocolate in the mixing bowl. Let sit 30 seconds, then stir together with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon. Add vanilla and syrup and stir gently to blend well.

Pour melted chocolate into cavities in the mold all the way to the top. Tip mold over bowl of melted chocolate to drain cavities, leaving them coated with chocolate. Refrigerate for a few minutes to set up.

Spoon ganache into cavities, leaving 1/16" to 1/8" free at the top. Top the ganache with melted chocolate to cover and seal the truffles. Refrigerate until nice and cold, at least half an hour. Remove the truffles by pushing the cavities inside out. Store in a container in the refrigerator. Share with friends. Easy!

Before I go, I have a restaurant for you to try. Paul and I took a ride to Fremont and since I had seen a segment on Check Please! Bay Area a couple of years ago on an Afghan restaurant in that Silicon Valley town, I suggested we try it. They gave it great reviews and I made a note of it. There were some curry dishes on the menu and since I'm watching my calories I ordered the chicken curry and merely tasted Paul's lamb curry. Both were delicious. The owner came by and I told him we loved the curry but it tasted Indian to me. He said it was Indian and if we wanted Afghan food to order the kebabs etc. I was puzzled and wondered (to myself) why they didn't stick to Afghan food. I asked him if anyone from Afghanistan worked there, as the kitchen was manned by cooks from Mexico, which is normal, and our server was from Peru. He did say his grandson worked there so he's covered, I guess. The Afghan naan (bread) was whole wheat, not fried, and very tasty. We had the firni, a pudding with rosewater and pistachios and it was very good. Overall the food and service was good, the bathrooms clean and the place was welcoming. I recommend it. Website: Salang Pass Restaurant

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Adventures in Mole

I am a big fan of Rick Bayless. In case you don't know who he is, he has travelled extensively in Mexico over many years, immersing himself in the cuisine through street vendors, home cooks and restauranteurs. He has a show on PBS and won Top Chef Masters last year cooking what he loves - Mexican food. I would love to jump on a plane and blissfully dine in his Chicago restaurants. Perhaps
I will. I have cooked several recipes from his Mexican Kitchen book; I swear his Mexican rice is the best I've ever had. The chipotle peanut mole is unlike any mole I have ever tasted (in a very good way) and the jicama salad is crunchy, refreshing and full of flavor. I could go on but I won't.

Last weekend it was our turn to host our gourmet cooking club and I wanted to have a Rick Bayless dinner. Not only that, I was going to make a red mole, with 26 ingredients and it wasn't going to get made in one day. Rick does recommend breaking such a big undertaking up and I planned accordingly, starting with the shopping.

I'm going to tell you right now, I decided to go with real lard as my cooking fat. I'm sure you're horrified at the thought, but let me share some statistics with you about pork fat that I got from Fat, An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient... by Jennifer McLagan. Generally pork fat breaks down to 39% saturated fat, 45% monounsaturated and 11% polyunsaturated.The low level of polyunsaturated fat means the fat is more stable, which makes it great for cooking. Do I plan to use lard regularly? No, but I felt it was important to this experience. I rejected the lard packaged up in boxes; just look at the ingredients. Partially hydrogenated oils right from the jump! I went to El Dorado Market on South El Dorado (1 block north of Charter Way) and asked for lard. I rejected the packaged crap and asked for manteca de puerco hecho aquí. I don't know if it was rendered there but the butcher went in the back and returned with a pint of lard in a styrofoam container. It cost me $1.29. It smelled like animal fat so I'm trusting it was the real deal. It's totally worth driving to a Mexican market for lard. I tried rendering lard once last year, and it was a smelly, yucky experience and not very energy efficient.

I spent the next evening splitting and seeding peppers. I saved the seeds, which were toasted and turned into a spice mixture with several other ingredients, like a grated avocado pit!!! I can't believe I bought an avocado just for that, but I was determined not to swerve. Sitting at the dinner table with the tv on makes it seem less like an endless task.

The next evening I spent THREE HOURS frying the chiles, and nuts and seeds, in the lard. Man, I used a lot of lard. And paper towels to soak up the lard. I used my Vita Mix blender to blend up the chiles and strain (I hate straining) and then the spice paste. (As an aside, the Vita Mix works so well that there was very little in the strainer.) By the end of the night I was fried; seriously. But the worse was over, honest.

I took a night off and on Thursday I cooked the chiles mixture (in a little lard) and added the spice paste and cooked some more. Here's where it gets dangerous. If you've ever cooked cornmeal on top of the stove, or hey, even mole, you may have experienced the popping and splattering that goes with it. Well this mole popped and it got me good. I have a lovely 2nd degree burn on my
wrist which is still tender and looks worse than it feels. What's funny is the mole only popped and spattered while I was stirring it, and you're supposed to stir it. Frequently. I just got a hot tip on burns today which beggars belief. Squirting yellow mustard on the burn stops the pain cold. I don't know how long to leave it on; evidently it starts hurting again if you wash it off. Please let me know if you try this; better yet don't burn yourself. I'm going to pledge not to burn myself either.

One more tip: if you decide to take the plunge and make mole, wear clothes that you don't care about. An apron doesn't give enough coverage. I wore my chef coat and it is now permanently stained from spilling some spice paste on it. And oh, from popping and splattering.

I'm sure want to know, was it delicious? Worth the trouble? Yes, it was excellent, you won't get that kind of mole around here except in the home of a great cook. It is rich, moderately spicy, with complex flavors from 2 kinds of chiles and 24 other ingredients like almonds, peanuts, tomatillos, tomatoes, on and on. Worth it? Well, I like a challenge to get my juices flowing and I'm happy I made it. Plus, I have lots left over resting in the freezer right now. And oh, I served it with roasted Cornish game hens. (Sorry I wasn't able to get a good picture, I was plating up birds for 8 and didn't take my time. And Yikes! I served the little blighter back side up!) Any, it was yum.

Here's the bad news, depending on how you look at it. I can't give you the recipe, it's copyrighted, but if you want a fabulous Mexican cookbook get Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. It's totally worth it. If you want free recipes, go to Rick's website, it's loaded with great recipes. He won't mind.

I have plans to try one more mole, the mole negro. A while back I wrote about my pending chile garden, which will have the chiles required for the said mole negro. Recently my box of chile plants arrive and they are in the ground, looking happy. It will be some time before I will have chiles, and get them dried for cooking. So I have time to forget what a big job this was. And I may be willing to do it again.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Little Necks the Slanted Door Way

The Slanted Door at the Ferry Building in San Francisco is one of my favorite restaurants. The food is basically Vietnamese, but it's nothing like anything served in Stockton. It is Gourmet and unambiguously wonderful. When the server told us the clams were a special that day there was no hesitation. They were served as an appetizer in an earthenware bowl, with steaming broth that packed a flavor punch. Spicy, citrusy, basily, garlicky, you get it. When the bus persons came by, trying to take the bowl away, I threatened them with cement shoes. Instead I asked for big spoons so we (by that I mean I) could spoon the delicious broth and not waste a bit. I asked our server if I could get the ingredient list, lest I die. Later she brought me the list, scribbled on a scrap of paper.

My first task was to find roasted chili paste. On my second Asian grocery store stop I found roasted chili paste with shrimp powder. I was dubious but bought it anyway, you know, just in case. On my third stop I found straight chili paste. My Eureka experience was at the New Cambodia Market at 4753 N. Pershing Ave. in Stockton. It's in a strip mall on the nw corner of Pershing and March Lane, facing the Pershing side. It's kind of a cool little market and if you live near there it's definitely worth a try if you're looking for an obscure Asian ingredient.

When we ate our clams I tasted a definite citrus flavor; so even though lemongrass wasn't on the paper scrap, I used it anyway. The basil is cut in a chiffonade, which just means stacking a few leaves, rolling them up and slicing them into ribbons.

In my last article on clams I forget to tell you how I get them ready to cook. Put the live clams in a bowl of cold salted water (I add ice) and let them soak 30 minutes. Drain and rinse and repeat. This is supposed to make them spit out the sand in their shells.

It took me two tries to get this right. The first time I used one whole teaspoon of roasted chili paste. Paul and I were breathing fire but it was good so we ate it anyway. For the second try Paul begged me to use just 1/4 teaspoon and he was right. Maybe a little too hot for Goldilocks but for us it was about right. The flavors were good and we ate every bit. It came very close to what we experienced that day so I'm ready to call it good. For now.

Little Necks A La Slanted Door

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, mashed and minced
1/3 or more jalapeño, seeds removed, minced
1 quart chicken broth
4 stalks lemongrass
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon roasted chili paste
2 tablespoons ginger, coarsely chopped
1 slice bacon sliced crosswise 1/4" thick
1 1/2 pounds little neck clams
1 tablespoon basil, chiffonade

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the shallot and jalapeño and sweat until tender and aromatic, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook about 30 seconds to release its aroma. Pour chicken broth into saucepan and heat over medium setting.

Start adding next four ingredients to the broth. Cut the lemongrass into approximately 2 inch pieces and mash to release flavor by whacking them with the flat side of a chef's knife. Add the fish sauce, chili paste and ginger; simmer gently with lid on for about half an hour to infuse the broth with all the flavors. Turn off the heat and let sit while you cook the bacon until nice and brown. Roll bacon strips up in a paper towel to soak up fat and set aside.

Strain broth into a large measuring cup and pour back into saucepan. Keep warm over medium low heat.

Cook the clams: ladle a quarter cup or so broth into a saute pan and heat up over medium high heat. Add the clams and cover with a lid. Remove the clams as they pop open (a glass lid really makes it easy) and divide them into two serving bowls. When all clams are cooked, top with bacon and basil chiffonade and then the rest of the hot broth. Eat and enjoy.

One last thing, I have switched fish sauce brands to Tiparos. It has half the sodium of the brand I was using. And that's a good thing.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Behold the Delicious Clam

I have loved clams all my life, beginning with my Grandma Kaloutsis' clams and rice dish, which as I recall had a tomato base and was absolutely reeking of garlic (as did we, after dinner). My dad had to take bicarbonate of soda after our Friday night dinners but my brothers and I had no problem eating that dish. The clam dish I'm writing about now is also Mediterranean, but distinctively Italian. This recipe is a little different from the usual; I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

First of all, a clam isn't a clam isn't a clam. I particularly like littlenecks, such as Manilas or the beautiful cockles with green shells. Steamer clams, such as the ones I just used are fine. Get small to medium clams, alive and snapped shut tight. I usually use generic dried linguine pasta but this time I tried Trader Joe's Garlic Herb Linguine, which was tasty but has a softer texture. I love lots of clams so I make this recipe heavy on clams and lighter on pasta. I thought I was still hungry but about 20 minutes after eating I felt full. However, if you are a big eater and not eating light like me, pile on the pasta.

Since I wanted to lighten up this dish, bacon is conspicuously absent. If you want it I recommend pancetta (unsmoked Italian bacon), cut into medium dice and cooked until browned, then adding the rest of the ingredients.

Linguine & Clams

Serves 2

1/2 to 1 full jalapeño, split lengthwise and seeded
2 teaspoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon minced garlic cloves (or use a garlic press)
2 shakes red pepper flakes
1 1/2 pounds fresh, live clams in their shells
1/4 cup dry white wine
4 ounces dry linguine
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons chopped flatleaf parsley
juice and zest of one lemon
shredded fresh parmesan
cheese, if and as desired

Heat oven to 400° and brush your jalapeño with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake on a sheet for 10 to 15 minutes, until pepper is soft. Let cool and chop finely. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the linguine according to the package instructions, preferable to al dente (Goldilocks style - just right).

Meanwhile, heat your large nonstick saute pan with the oil and and saute the jalapeño, garlic and pepper flakes for 1 minute. Turn up the heat and add the clams and wine and cover. Remove the clams to a bowl as they open so they won't overcook and become mushy. Your pasta should be just about done so add the butter, parsley, lemon zest and juice to the pan along with
the clams. Mix in the drained pasta and parsley. Divide up into two plates and dig in.

I confess I have never served this to company, not sure why. But if you want to serve four clamophiles, up your clam count to about 3 pounds and use a pound of linguine. Add a little more butter, maybe a little more wine and you're good. Just don't forget the lemon.

Dessert-to-die-for alert: last month Paul and I took my mother to Filoli Mansion and Gardens in Woodside for a fun birthday outing. We took the two (yes, two) hour tour of the mansion and amazing gardens. So worth the trip over the San Mateo Bridge and a wee bit farther. At the end of our tour our docent (tour guide) told me we must go to Buck's in Woodside for the boysenberry cobbler. Since she said it was to die for I signed us up. Woodside is an extremely small place and Buck's is no problem to find. I told our server we were there for the boysenberry cobbler experience and she confirmed that it was the smart thing to do. It was served very warm, in a crock, with lots of crusty bits, and a slab of vanilla ice cream on top. The three of us shared it without too much fighting and pronounced it excellent. I look forward to going back. I just won't drink the coffee again.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

You Can Coq au Vin

I recently made coq au vin for family and it's such a nice dish I wanted to share it with you. Coq au vin is French comfort food; it means chicken and wine and ooh la la it's good! The original recipe has lots of fat and since I wanted to make it hip and thigh friendly I have modified it so that it's delicious and pretty guilt free. It really helps to have excellent nonstick cookware (I prefer Swiss Diamond). Removing all skin and fat from the chicken is a must, and I really cut back on the bacon. To further save on calories I increased the chicken broth to red wine ratio. It will still be divine. Serve with mashed potatoes and you will be in heaven.

Coq au Vin
Serves 4 what I consider generous portions
Prep time about an hour. Bake about an hour.

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 ounce good bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4 inch pieces
1 carrot, cut into medium dice
12 frozen pearl onions
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 whole chicken legs (legs and thighs attached), skin and fat removed
kosher salt and black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 cups budget hearty red wine, like Livingston, Gallo, Inglenook. I prefer cabernet sauvignon.
1 cup chicken broth
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, stripped off the stems
12 cremini mushrooms, halved (I like the flavor better than white buttons)

In your excellent nonstick saute pan, cook the bacon over medium heat until it is moderately brown. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and cook the carrots and onions in the bacon fat until onions start to brown. It could take 5 or more minutes. Add the garlic and cook 2 more minutes. Remove vegetables from pan and put in a bowl.

Preheat your oven to 325°; meanwhile salt and pepper your chicken and brown it on all sides in your excellent nonstick pan with the olive oil. Remove chicken and place in a baking pan. Put the vegetables and bacon back in the saute pan and add the flour. Cook, stirring constantly for about 3 minutes. Add the red wine, chicken broth, bay leaf, thyme and mushrooms. Bring to a boil and then pour everything over the chicken and cover the pan with a lid or foil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Uncover and bake another 15 to 20 minutes, or until chicken is really tender.

Put chicken quarters on a platter and cover with foil. Reduce sauce over medium heat, if you wish, until it thickens up a bit. (You probably won't need to degrease the sauce.) Spoon sauce and vegetables over chicken and serve. Put some sauce in a gravy boat for your mashed potatoes if you wish - it will be swoonworthy. Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Red Hot Chile Garden

In my cooking adventures I have become a big fan of Rick Bayless, who won the Top Chef Masters competition with his mastery of Mexican cuisine. I have two of his cookbooks and have made some great food. The mole negro is calling me but
you can't get the needed chiles in local markets. So I am going to grow a chile garden - except you can't seem to get the seeds around here either. Luckily I was recently introduced to The Chile Woman, who grows and ships a whole lotta varieties of chiles. After some dithering I chose the chilhualces and isla mulatos for my mole negro, firey yet reputedly fruity tasting chocolate
scotch bonnet for Jamaican jerk and New Mexico Hatch chile just because it sounds interesting. The Chile Woman starts
shipping in May so hopefully I mailed (yes, mailed) my order in plenty of time to get my chile desires fulfilled. Go to her site and be amazed at the sheer variety of chile plants she purveys. Be forwarned: the plants cost $3.50 apiece and the shipping is expensive. This was definitely a splurge, but chiles are perennial and I plan to save my seeds. Wish me luck!

My request for Valentine's Day was a day trip, not just a meal in a dimly lit restaurant. Since I dawdled we couldn't get a reservation at Taste Restaurant in Plymouth, land of the Shenandoah Valley wineries. Taste, by the way, is a somewhat expensive joint with amazing food in the foothills not far from Sutter Creek. So I suggested that we go to San Jose and visit the Winchester Mystery House (last time I was there I was 11) and Santana Row, a kind of European looking row of shops and restaurants. To my surprise, the Mystery House was only a block from Santana Row so it was so simple. I chose a restaurant
by looking up places on the Row website and decided on Thea Mediterranean Cuisine.

We arrived for lunch; the place was pretty empty. It's decorated like I imagine a Greek Taverna appears, with white walls, open space, big sconces, etc. The warm bread they brought out was sitting on a little pool of herbed olive oil instead of in a basket - soft and indescribably delicious. I had the lamb sliders, 3 on a plate with a fluffy mesclun salad dressed with oil and vinegar. They were fantabulous: seasoned and cooked perfectly and dressed with tzaziki, a garlic cucumber yogurt sauce, and a little avocado. The cute little toy buns were perfect with a slightly firm bite. Pure heaven. Paul had a shredded chicken panini with which he was well pleased. All was more than well, and the baklava with yogurt sauce was a yummy morsel. I want to go back for dinner. Soon. Very highly recommended. Let me know when you go.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Ziti

When I blogged about our trip to upstate New York and dining at Roberto's in Jamestown, I wrote that I just had to make my own version of baked ziti, a classic Italian American dish. I actually did a few days later, and it turned out delicious, although on a whim I bought mozzarella in a rolled up sheet. It didn't look good even though it tasted good. The picture I took looked awful; the shot below is with shredded cheese, definitely the way to go. Feel free to add grated parmesan but for heaven's sake get freshly grated cheese or grate it yourself.

I wanted the ziti to be an easy dish for anyone to make, using easy ingredients for a quick dinner. It's not a 30 minute meal, but it's not taxing either. I used Trader Joe's organic marinara, but you can use your favorite bottled sauce, of course. I wanted the richness of mascarpone (kind of an Italian cream cheese) but feel free to use ricotta. On my second try just this week I saw a carton of Kefir Cheese Lebne, a type of spreadable yogurt. I tried it and really liked it. I found the Lebne at S-Mart Foods right here in Stockton. Baked ziti is not lasagna, and I feel the meat (sausage) should be treated like a condiment and not overload
the dish. But it's your dish; add more if you like.

1 lb package ziti
12 oz sweet Italian sausage
8 oz sliced cremini or button mushrooms
1 large medium dice shallot
1 bottle marinara of your choice
1/2 cup mascarpone
2 pinches salt if needed.
16 oz shredded mozzarella

Bring lots of water to a boil along with a tablespoon of salt. Add ziti and cook until barely al dente. Meanwhile, take sausage out of casings, crumble and cook in saute pan over medium heat. Remove sausage and add sliced mushrooms and diced shallot.
Cook until mushrooms are tender and most of liquid is cooked off. Add sausage back into pan along with marinara and mascarpone. Mix well and let simmer gently to thicken your sauce. Drain ziti and mix with sausage mixture along with half of the mozzarella. Pour into an approximately 10x15 baking dish. Spread the rest of the cheese on the top and bake at 350° for 30 minutes, then place under broiler for up to 5 min to caramelize the cheese and make the top noodles a little crunchy. Serves at least 6.

Restaurant Review: the day after Christmas Paul and I wanted to get out of town, not far, just to Napa. I wanted to try Go
in St. Helena, just a bit up the road. As the name implies they serve fish and the inside of the restaurant looks kind of like a fish market, with lots of white tile. There's lots of unusual art too, strange really, which is right up my alley (check out their logo). I ordered the Hog Island Manila Clams; the little suckers were only about 1/2 inch long and about 30 or 40 in the bowl.
Man were they good, with white wine, butter, lots o' garlic and linquini. Paul, on the other hand, ordered fish and chips. Who does that? I mean order f&c in the Napa Valley? Anyway, he was displeased but didn't send them back. Teaching moment: when you get a dish that isn't prepared properly, SEND IT BACK. Explain why you don't like it (don't just say it sucks). And don't just pout and pay and never go back. Your provider deserves a chance to make it right and you deserve a good meal. Now, if you go to Sid's Grease Pit sending it back might not help. But you get my drift. My recommendation is to eat at Go Fish; you may love it.

Please leave me a comment and let me know if you try The Ziti.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Some Tidbits For You

Paul and I were invited to the Blaine's for Christmas dinner and when I asked what to bring, Gloria suggested strawberry pretzel jello salad. I immediately balked for two reasons: I've had it a bazillion times and I don't know where the recipe is. The first time I ever had it was at a church lady jello salad fiesta at the Catholic church in Manteca many years ago. Loved it.

Even farther back is Grandma Brown's bodacious Cranberry Jello Mold. I swear she served it at every family gathering and we all fell on it like a pack of wolves. She used her Tupperware ring mold to create a tres chic presentation. Regardless of not knowing where the recipe was I suggested cranberry jello and got the go-sign. I thought I had inherited the ring mold but couldn't find it - probably chucked it as plastics get sticky after 30 years or so. I had found a recipe in the newspaper which called for chopped celery (suspicious) and crushed pineapple (maybe okay) and mayonnaise (ugh) on the side!!!!! I called my mother and she knew the recipe. Man is it simple. Served it in a pretty glass bowl and then ordered a Jel-Ring Mold from Tupperware and it came today. I want to mold something.

Cranberry Jello Mold

One 6 oz package cherry jello
2 cups boiling water
One 8 oz carton sour cream
1 can jellied whole cranberries

Pour boiling water over jello in heat-safe bowl. Stir to dissolve completely. Let cool a little. Whisk in sour cream. Break up jellied cranberries and mix well into jello. Let cool somewhat before pouring into bowl or mold. Follow directions that came with your mold. If you use a mold, invert onto a chilled serving plate.

I was a little nervous about serving this but it came out good and got good reviews. Grandma B. was a fabulous candy and pie maker. I just wish I had been interested in learning from her back then; alas, I was only interested in eating her productions.

On Christmas morning I had my mother and a couple of friends over for brunch and decided to make a crustless quiche, among other treats. I had made it once before, making it gluten-free and drop-kicking the usual blah blah blah swiss cheese. I'm partial to pepper jack cheese, as I like a little heat. This is pretty simple; I used a 9 inch pie plate for baking and used a combination of heavy cream and the 2% milk I always keep on hand. Couldn't see any point in buying whole milk for just one cup. If you want you can try using lower fat milk but I haven't tried it and so can't recommend it. It is a special occasion dish so enjoy yourself!

Crustless Pepper Jack Quiche

1 cup chopped onions
1 cup diced ham from the deli (1/4 lb)
1 Tb unsalted butter
8 oz shredded pepper jack cheese
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup 2% milk
(or 1 cup heavy cream and 1 cup whole milk)

Preheat oven to 425, rack in middle of oven.
Butter pie plate.
Cook onions and ham in butter over medium high heat until golden, about 5 minutes.
Spread in dish, evenly distribute cheese over top.
Whisk together eggs, cream, milk and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and pour over cheese.
Bake until top is golden and custard is set with slight wobble, up to 30 minutes. Start checking by 20 minutes or so.
Cool a little. Serve by spooning it out. Serves 6 easily.

Really rich and good. Good leftover too, just warm it up a little.
Please comment me and let me know if you try these out!