Archive | March, 2011

Lazy Susan

31 Mar

For those of you who know my mom, you know that she is not the least bit lazy.  Actually, I might go as far to say that she feels slightly insulted that she must share the name with the turning platter or spice cabinet.  Not exactly knowing the origin of how the common kitchen apparatus came to be, I almost want to deem it a new non-lethargic name: Non-Lazy Susan.  After all, that turny thing really does a lot of work when you think about it.  Why the rambling about a kitchen item?  I’ll explain.

Last week was my spring break.  No, I don’t have any crazy Mexican Riviera stories to share, nor did I wake up sunburnt in especially uncomfortable places.  But Rob and I do have some pretty amazing stories, and recipes, to share from last week’s Orange County adventures.

It all started with a lovely trip to the mall (one of many trips to the mall) where we learned that one of California’s most known names in the culinary world of Italian, California, and specifically Wine Country cuisine would be visiting for a book signing.  It was a small event, and Rob and I were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time to RSVP. So Thursday night, Rob, my mom, and I sipped a bright up-and-coming red wine blend (Bridesmaid), and ate a lovely pasta salad appetizer and waited among other food and wine enthusiasts to meet Chef Michael Chiarello.

Needless to say, his stories about food and cooking inspiration, and the trials, tribulations, and joys of wedding celebrations were heartfelt and genuine and probably made everyone want to go home and whip up a remarkable dish to share.  I, too, was getting motivated and started thinking about what I could create with the bounty of spring veg popping up these days.  But it wasn’t until I publicly implied that my mother lazy in the middle of his presentation that made me want to go home and crawl under a rock.

While showing and explaining some of his retail products, mid-sentence Chef Chiarello paused for a moment and started asking for a “Susan.”  Thinking he was being funny and looking for someone to use in his story, I turn and point to my mom with a small “she’s right there!” outburst.

“A Lazy Susan?” Chef asked, turning in the direction of my pointing finger, aimed at my mom who had just happened to be sitting down near the side of the room.  An audible gasp and even more audible giggle engulfed the room as my face turned to a deep shade of strawberry – seriously, visions of a “Violet” casting for the next Willy Wonka remake ran through my head.  Quickly I tried to diffuse the situation.

“No!  No!!  That’s not – oh crap,” which, of course, evoked more unwanted crowd reaction.  My mom was smirking and shaking her head.  Rob had an I-want-to-laugh-at-you-but-know-that-will-most-likely-get-me-in-trouble-face.

“Is that Susan?” Chef asked.  “Well, she doesn’t look lazy,” he continued, “but she is sitting down.”  More less-tense crowd laughter ensued, leading to an expertly diffused situation on his part.  And as he continued with his initial thought of explaining the usefulness of the turning platter, I turned to go give my mother a hug and apologize.  She was smiling, which made me thankful to see that the experience had been a funny one, and a completely memorable faux pas (but just to be sure, when we got our cookbooks signed, I did introduce my mom as Non-Lazy Susan).

While that little moment was, well, memorable to say the least, the rest of the night and the rest of our vacation was wonderful.  We spent some amazing time with my mom, I got to go to Heather’s baby shower, and we shared some amazing meals.

I have commented enough that the fish from the Oregon Coast is outstanding – and it is – but, there are some down south that Oregon just can’t beat.  Case in point: Ahi Tuna.  It’s a more warm-water fish (tropical and subtropical), one that could not survive the cold, often arctic streams of water we have up here.  So, as best to do on vacations, we indulged: Brown Butter Seared Ahi Steaks with Strawberry and Arugula Salad.  Yum.  It was a very “California” dish as strawberry season recently started and a few miles from my parent’s house is one of the best organic strawberry farms in the area.  To this day, I’ve never found a strawberry to beat theirs (and I eat a LOT of strawberries during the months of March through June.  I’m surprised I don’t turn into a strawberry.  Oh goodness… channeling Willy Wonka again).

We also visited the UCI Farmer’s Market, brining home beautiful veg and sausages, which ended up in a Wild Mushroom and Thyme Frittata, and an oh-so-comforting meal starring my mom’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage that is just to die for.

Traveling home late Sunday night, I knew going back to work was only a few hours away, and our blissfulness of vacation was waning.  But, with our food and our experiences, we have the memories to keep and stories to share.  If you are in a location to get local sushi grade Ahi, please try out this recipe before strawberry season ends – the combination of the creamy rare fish with the tangy sweet strawberries and peppery greens may even make you feel indulged and relaxed by a mini vacation (just don’t go accidentally call your mother Lazy!).

Brown Butter Ahi Steaks with Strawberry and Arugula Salad (serves 4)

  • 2 lbs. sushi grade Ahi Tuna steaks
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 4 c baby arugula leaves
  • 1 pint strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/8 c white balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 c good extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-2 tbsp roughly chopped basil
  • parmesan regiano for shaving on top of dish
  • s&p

For the salad, mix the arugula, basil, and strawberries in a large bowl.  To make the dressing, mix the vinegar and lemon juice in a bowl, and add a bit of s&p.  Whisk in the extra virgin olive oil until emulsified (you will toss the salad with the dressing right before serving; the dressing should just be a touch of tang to the salad, not overly dressed at all).  Taste for seasoning.

To prep the Ahi, pat the steaks dry with a paper towel, and season with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and a very generous bit of pepper.  Preheat a heavy bottomed pan to be smokin’ hot.  Melt the butter in the pan until brown bits start to form.  Then using tongs, add the Ahi to the pan and sear each side, about 2-3 minutes, depending on the thickness of the steak (the inside should stay very rare).

Serve the steak with a handful topping of the salad, and shave a few shreds of parmesan regiano on top.  Maybe drizzle a bit of fruity finishing oil on top, if you have it.

This pairs beautifully with a light California Pinot or Sauvignon Blanc.  Enjoy!!

They’re Magically Delicious

19 Mar

My husband recently learned the meaning of his last name is “World Ruler.”  This certainly did not help with the I’m-100%-Irish-I-have-no-impurities jokes.  But being that Thursday was the day that every Irishman cheers at dawn and every wannabe Irishman puts on a green shirt and drinks beer as if that will magically change their DNA, I celebrated Rob’s origin and lineage as he was figuratively crowned World Ruler – if just for the day. 🙂

I am a fan of St. Patrick’s Day, and yes, thanks for our Nana, my sister and I do have some Irish in us.  Growing up, our mom would surprise us on many fun holidays (and still does!) with treaties; humble and memorable, those treats would be waiting for us when we woke up in the morning, whether it was Valentines Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, or any other day with cause for a celebration.  During my teen years I would even take longer than normal in the morning before coming downstairs, prolonging the anticipation of seeing what Mom had planned (weird, teenage mentality).  But there was always one staple on St. Patrick’s Day that was made so special for us, that it hardly lasted through the day: Lucky Charms.

We only had Lucky Charms on St. Patrick’s Day.  It was a solid tradition that having the sugary, fake-marshmallowy breakfast food on any other day was simply out of the question.  In college, I remember the giant row of all-you-can-eat tubs of cereals in the cafeterias, Lucky Charms being one that was almost always empty.  But I was strong and stuck true to tradition and went with a more suitable option: Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Anywho, being lucky enough to marry an Irishman, he was happy to carry on the St. Paddy’s Day breakfast treat tradition (though he’s still pressing why the cereal is limited to just St. Patrick’s Day – there are heart marshmallows, those are for Valentines Day!  There are pots of gold, those are for pay-day!).

So Wednesday evening, like a couple of silly kids we bounded into the grocery store and I flew right passed the cereal isle, causing Rob to have to physically point me in the right direction.

“Where is it?  Where is it?”  It was kind of ridiculous that two late-twenty-somethings were borderline frantic over finding a cereal.

“Oh no!  They’re sold out!”  Rob’s whine preempted my shoulders to hunch.  “I’m sorry, babe.”

As we started walking away, our eyes were caught by a glimmer of green, sitting proudly on the bottom shelf.  The colorful, sugary tastes came to our mouths and my memories came flooding back , with only one tiny difference standing out.

“I don’t remember these being whole grain,” Rob went to put down the initially chosen box to pick up one that was not quite as healthy, when we realized they all had the small, but noticeable,”Whole Grain!!” label stamped on, hiding the over-sized pictures of many-a-marshmallow.  So all this time, my mom was giving us a somewhat healthy grain cereal covered up by the addictive addition of colorful shapes of sugar.  Go, Mom!

Rob picked up the biggest box they had (large enough to probably pass as a warehouse box).

“No.  No, we are not getting that box.  We do not need pounds of this cereal.”  I was adamant.  After all, if something like Lucky Charms is in the house, I will most likely – no, I just will – eat it.  I took the box from him, and bent down to put it back.  At which point, Rob also bends down, grabs another gigantor box, knocks into me knocking other boxes onto the floor, takes his loot and runs.  Literally.  A 26-year old man (a Coast Guard Pilot, mind you), arms clutching a heart-attack sized box of cereal to his chest, running down the isle in the grocery store.  The 5-year old in him took over and got away!  Well, I guess Lucky Charms will do that to you.

I put the fallen boxes back, and Rob reluctantly succumbed to the smaller box and we completely enjoyed our cereal treat Thursday morning.

We also had the regular Irish fare for dinner – corned beef and cabbage (it’s the only day of the year I will actually boil meat), steak fries, and Irish Soda Bread.  When Rob and I were dating long-distance, I would send him Irish Soda Bread and mint jelly on his World Ruler Day, and I’ve changed the recipe somewhat since then, the more and more I learn about making bread.  Soda Bread does not use any yeast, but rises in the oven with egg and cold butter, and has that distinctive baking soda tang, cut nicely by a bit of sugar and dried fruit.  Topped with a dollop of salted Irish butter, and you’ve got yourself a perfect breakfast, snack, or desert, perfect with a strong cup of coffee.

By our standards, you’ll have to wait another 353 days to get Lucky Charms, but try out the soda bread.  It might just bring out your inner-Irishman.

Irish Soda Bread (makes 1 round loaf)

  • 4 1/3 c all purpose unbleached flour, plus more for dusting
  • 5 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 4 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 1/2 c buttermilk (shake it before pouring)
  • 1/2 c soda water
  • 1 c dried currants, cranberries, or raisins

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a stand mixer, pour in flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda, and mix to combine.  Using your hands, break up the chunks of butter in the flour mixture until they look like small peas.  Add in the egg slowly, while keeping the mixer on low.  When incorporated, add in the buttermilk, and then the soda water.  Mix well to combine, and then fold in the dried fruit of your choice (NOTE: dust the fruit a bit of flour, so when they are incorporated into the dough, they don’t sink to the bottom).  The dough should be a bit wet, but shapeable.

Pour out the dough onto a lined baking sheet (you may need to dust a bit with flour) and shape into a round loaf.  Using a sharp knife, make an X in the top of the dough.

Bake until bread is golden brown and crusty on top.  The bread should sound hollow when you tap it on the bottom.

** Try topping a toasted piece of Soda Bread with a poached egg, a touch of sea salt, and generous pepper.  You will thank yourself.  🙂


When it Rains, Part Deux

16 Mar

(Disclaimer: there is a harsh capital letter in this post… read with caution).

Holy cow, when will it stop raining?  So I know I’m fairly new to all these Northwest lifestyle changes, but this is just ridiculous.

The weatherman (the local TV guy, not the infamous bachelorette contestant) said we are in the “rainy season.”  I’m sorry, I know of only 4 seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.  Is this “rainy season” the claimed 5th season?  Like the 5th taste – umami?  Can we actually even try to compare delicious umami with continual cold, sopping rain?  I think not.

For weeks (minus the brief relief of sun last Friday), the Oregon Coast has been cold, windy, and oh-so-rainy.  This is drenching rain.  The windshield wipers can’t move fast enough, rain.  Umbrellas are a joke, rain.  Rain, rain, bleeping rain.  And despite all the cold wetness, it’s still the start of Spring.  So along the sides of the roads, and among many gardens, bright and cheery daffodils are stubbornly sprouting and opening.  They stand beautiful, strong and tall on their thin stems during giant gusts of wind and rain, sort of like giving pretty little middle fingers to the evil rain gods.  If you listen close enough, you can even hear their “F-you, winter!  I’m gonna grow!” protests.

While I realize my tone, dripping with dreariness (pun and double entendre intended), is a downer, there are many things that I’ve realized can remedy the bad-weather-blues: sleep, eat, play Wii, cook, eat more, sleep more, run crazily around the house until an inevitable toe-stubbing, then sit by the fire.  Sigh.  Being that these options are about all that can be done (when it’s not exactly safe to leave the house and drive somewhere), it’s best to make the most of it.

So last night, I had a friend over to make the ultimate comfort food – pasta.  For Christmas, Tammy received the pasta-rolling/cutting attachments to her stand mixer, and at mid-March she had not yet ventured into the gluten-loving world of fresh pasta.  Being another rainy (yet not as treacherous) night, she came over to learn the tricks.

I must say, Tammy’s first time making pasta was much better than mine.  She did keep all eggs on the counter, and she did not get flour all over the kitchen.  She didn’t even start to sweat in the last 5 minutes of kneading, and her pasta rolled and thinned out beautifully (no stretchy holes!).  We chatted and caught up on life during our little carb-filled girls night, and enjoyed a humble dinner of fresh linguini with a creamy vodka vegetable ragu (good last night, but even better today at lunch).

There’s something amazing about freshly made pasta that just lightens even the heaviest sauce.  I’m a huge fresh pasta fan, and will almost always go the extra length to make my own.  I also find something so organic and earthy about forming, kneading, and rolling my own pasta dough, that really does make a difference in the taste.

Before I had my own pasta attachments, I would use wonton wrappers as a device to stuff ravioli filling in my mouth.  They are common, and work well (only boil for a minute or less, or saute or pan fry them in butter), and are understandably a great scaffolding step to creating and experimenting with new pasta flavors.  But now that I’m making my own, I don’t plan on using those wrappers for anything other than go-to dumplings anytime soon.

Almost every decent technique cookbook has a recipe for pasta, and over the years of studying recipes and techniques, I realize that while there may be a million and two different recipes for homemade pasta, they really are about all the same: flour and eggs.  These recipes also, many times lead to an end result of pounds of pasta.  While having oodles of fresh pasta is great, unless you have the space to dry it and store it, a smaller batch may be more suitable for everyday use.  So, I have experimented many times with my own recipes to scale down the serving size, and came up with one that houses a healthy ratio of flour to eggs, and yielding enough pasta for a hearty two-person meal (I’m referring to a basic cut of spaghetti, linguini, pappardelle, or ravioli sheets).  That way, if there are any mistakes, the frustrated guilty feeling of wasting pounds of flour and a dozen eggs doesn’t wash over.  Also, it’s good for small kitchens. 🙂

Enjoy the pasta recipes below, and hopefully you will find them as light, tasty, and satisfying to make as I do (and now Tammy, too!).

Pasta Dough (serves 2 after rolled and cut) 

  • 1 c all purpose flour, plus more for possible dusting
  • 1 whole large egg, and 1 egg white
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Whole Wheat Pasta Dough (serves 2 after rolled and cut)

  • 1 c whole wheat flour, plus more for possible dusting
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a touch of water, if dough is feeling too dry and/or mealy when mixing.

Pour out the flour on a clean, dry surface, and form into a decent well-shape (like mashed potatoes awaiting gravy).  Gently pour in the egg and egg white, as well as the olive oil.  With a sturdy fork, lightly start beating the egg mixture while slowly incorporating the surrounding flour.  Once more and more flour is incorporated, you may need to wipe down the prongs of the fork.  Mix quickly – it’s OK to get a little messy (but try to keep all ingredients in a small surface area).

Once all of the loose flour is incorporated and it’s difficult to continue mixing with the fork, start kneading the dough.  It will feel sticky at first, but will quickly come together and feel tacky.  By the end of kneading the dough will feel springy and smooth.  Knead with a purpose (pushing away with the heel of your palm, and fold back; turn and repeat), for about 10 minutes.  Then cover dough with plastic wrap and let sit for about 30 minutes (the gluten have been stretched and aggravated, and need some time to relax.  And if it’s your first time kneading pasta dough, you may need to, as well).

Then, depending on your make of pasta rollers, set your roller to the first setting, lightly dust the dough with flour, and roll through until each time yields the same thickness (about 5-6 times).  Then change the setting to the next smallest setting, and roll through (about 3-4 times).  Continue until you get to desired thickness – I find with ravioli sheets, I go all the way up to the 7th or 8th setting for a thin dough, but for cutting spaghetti, I stop at 4.  But it is all your preference – that’s the great thing about cutting your own pasta!

Have boiling water ready (remember to heavily salt it!), and pour in pasta.  Remember, fresh pasta cooks much faster than commercially dried pasta, so don’t go call your BFF and start gossiping about last night’s Glee.  Cook until Al Dente (slightly toothsome – no one likes mushy pasta) and serve with sauce, or just barely undercook it and throw into your favorite sauce warming on the stove (the pasta will finish cooking in sauce pan).

It’s more than worth the time to make.  Please ENJOY!

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