Sunday, January 30, 2011

Brazilian Flan

We are always eager for any excuse to have a dinner party these days. Since my husband lived in the Amazon for a couple of years, he still jumps at every chance to practice his Portuguese. Having made a few Brazilian friends, we decided to have them over and take a stab at making authentic Brazilian food.

The center of our meal was feijoada, the thick and meaty black bean stew that Brazilians eat over rice. Replete with chunks of cooked pork and coins of linguica sausage, our feijoada (based on this recipe) was still a meat-lover's dream despite our omission of carne seca and chorizo. We chose to leave them out so that we would still fit into our pants at the end of the night, and happily the Brazilians still declared it "real feijoada".

For dessert, we served Brazilian flan, which is denser that other versions and always includes sweetened condensed milk. One native of Sao Paulo informed us that you can tell a quality flan from the holes in the sides of the flan. Ours was a hole-y offering indeed: delicate with a sweet caramelized sauce. It seemed strange as I read the recipe to bake a custard for 90 minutes, but it came out just right. Flan: Time consuming but simple and delicious. Enjoy!

Brazilian Flan

1 Cup sugar
1/4 Cup water
1 (14oz) can Sweetened Condensed Milk
3 Eggs
2 Cups whole milk
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a small pan, combine sugar and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat and boil rapidly until a light golden color. (This may take around 20 minutes.) Pour sugar into the pan of your choice; any basic pie pan will do. Coat the bottom and sides of your dish and let cool.

In a bowl, mix condensed milk, eggs & milk together. Add the vanilla now if you would like. Mix batter well & pour mixture into the caramelized sugar-coated pie dish.

Place dish in large roasting pan or baking pan. Add enough hot water to come halfway up sides of pie dish. The flan shouldn't float. Bake flan in water bath for 90 minutes, until set in center. Let cool, then cover and chill overnight. The flan can be made a couple days ahead.

To serve:
Run a knife around the edges of the flan to loosen. Place a serving plate that's a little bigger than the pie pan on top of the pie pan, and flip upside down. Gently remove the pie pan and cut the flan into sliced portions to serve.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Best Vegetable Chili

Photo courtesy of Cooking Light

Is there a vegetarian dish more cliche than vegetarian chili? It seems like an easy enough task to make a good vegetarian chili - just throw together some beans, some spices, some vegetables. Or so it appeared... Yet for a good long while, my husband and I have cooked our way through recipe after recipe for meatless chili and failed to find a version that both of us could tolerate, much less enjoy. One chili nearly choked us with an ancho chile overdose; another included imitation "ground meat" and was truly awful: bland with a stomach-turning texture.

When I saw the high ratings and positive reviews for this recipe from Cooking Light, I saw a light at the end of the bad chili tunnel. We made this for company and ended up scraping the bowl clean - it was fantastic! The flavors melded so well together that we didn't even miss the meat. It comes together in a jiffy as well. We will surely be using this recipe again and again.

Chunky Vegetable Chili

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped yellow bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 (16-ounce) cans stewed tomatoes, undrained
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, rinsed and drained


Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, bell peppers, and garlic; sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Add sugar and remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Spicy Thai Chicken with Basil (Gai Kra Prow)

As much as I love Thai food, and as much as I love to cook, it sometimes strikes me as odd that my experiences eating this delicious cuisine have been largely limited to the restaurant setting. But it seems that every time I have tried to recreate my favorite Thai dishes at home, it always tastes like something is missing. Besides that, I once inadvertently added so much green curry paste to a dish that I had to choke down small bites of it while tears streamed down my face. I think I emptied about half a box of Kleenex, and needless to say, that experience cooled me off from Thai cooking for a while!

But sometimes I can't help but wish that I could make these things at home. My favorite Thai dish to order at my most frequent haunt is Gai Kra Prow (or Gai Kra Pow, the English spelling varies): A chicken stir-fry with Thai basil and vegetables. The specific version I adore involves slices of chicken breast, bell peppers, onions, and straw mushrooms (which I knew I would have to leave out if I ever had the guts to make it at home because of Paul's allergy).

None of the recipes I found online for this dish exactly resembled the version I'm obsessed with. Many called for ground meat or left out the whole vegetable thing. So I put my thinking cap on and pieced together several different recipes, coming up with the first Thai dish I have made that came out close to perfect. Of course I have to share. I took a shortcut by using Vietnamese Chili Garlic sauce in lieu of fresh Thai chilis, which I didn't find in the stores at this time. I also used some sweet soy sauce I picked up in an Asian grocery store.

What do all of these ingredients together equate? A fantastic balance of sweet, savory, salty, and spicy flavors.

1 lb. chicken breast, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 T. chili garlic sauce
1 clove garlic, pressed
1/2 both red and green bell pepper, cut into cubes
1/2 a yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 T. sweet soy sauce
1 T. oyster sauce
1 T. fish sauce
1 tsp. sugar
2 T. water

2 handfuls Thai basil

Whisk together sauce ingredients. Heat 2 T. vegetable oil in a skillet over high heat. Add in garlic, chili garlic sauce, and chicken. Cook until chicken is no longer pink. Add in the bell pepper and onion; cook another 2-3 minutes until the vegetables are crisp-tender. Add sauce and stir fry another minute. Throw in the basil leaves and stir fry until they are wilted. Serve over jasmine rice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Heirloom Seeds

I'm growing corn poppies this year - and much more!

Lately, the gardener in me has started to get a slight touch of cabin fever. First, I satisfied myself by splitting several houseplants so that each room in our house contains at least one plant. (They purify the air, you know!) Next, I dressed each houseplant with our first harvest of worm castings. They seem to be loving that!

Next, I planned out our garden for 2011 that we are going to divide between containers at our apartment, and the plot of land at my parent’s house. We could easily grow things like herbs and salad greens at our place; I think they will enjoy the partial shade our patio provides. But most of our hopes like in the long neglected garden patch at my parent’s house.

Most exciting of all, we ordered the heirloom seeds that we will be planting this year. I am looking forward to trying new varieties of familiar plants, and growing many things I have never tried growing before. Our garden when I was a child had the ever productive zucchini and yellow squash, tomatoes and strawberries- the expected, easy-to-grow hybrids we picked up at Home Depot or something. This year, since we don’t have heat lights or room to start our own plants, we’ll pick out some tomato, herb, eggplant, and other heirloom seedlings from our local nursery.

Here’s the list of seeds we have ordered, scheduled to arrive next month sometime. We’ll see how they turn out!

Black Valentine Bush Beans
Delikatesse cucumber
Buttercrunch lettuce
Mache (corn salad)
America spinach
Tom Thumb lettuce
New England Pie pumpkins
Danver’s Half Long carrots
Sugar Ann sweet peas (not the flower, real peas)
Yarrow, Hyssop (to attract bees and good bugs!)
Dill (for pickles!)
Ruby Red swiss chard
Russian Red Kale
Mountain Sweet Yellow watermelon
Corn Poppies (for beauty)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Good to the Grain

My latest favorite thing to do in San Francisco is to get Burmese food (because really, where else are you gonna find it?) and meander around Green Apple Books, which is located in the vicinity of several good Burmese places.

During my last such trip, while looking through the impressively massive selection of used food-oriented books, I spotted a nice copy of Kim Boyce's highly acclaimed Good to the Grain.

A former pastry chef at LA's Spago (a restaurant by Wolfgang Puck), Boyce describes the history and use of each grain, then offers various recipes to complement their subtleties. Wheat is only the beginning here - she details all kinds of flours including less common, less known varieties such as kamut, amaranth, spelt, and teff. She offers insights such as this: "With a scent that is strangely reminiscent of ripe apricots, barley flour is almost tart." Who knew?!

I'm just getting started, but already her recipe for Oat Molasses Sandwich bread helped me produce a gorgeous golden, raised, finely textured bread. Slices of it were dynamite today with sliced turkey, cream cheese and some homemade chutney.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Job I Covet

Alice Waters with kids in Berkley's Edible Schoolyard

Dear Alice,

I want your job.

Sincerely, Me

P.S. You are really cool.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fuyu Persimmon Bundt Cake

We had some friends come in from out of town and visit us this weekend. We made a Korean-themed dinner for them after learning that they enjoy Asian food, and finished off our feast with a not-Asian-at-all-but-still-delicious cake.
As a side note, I have had a canker sore on my tongue all week, which meant that I couldn't take a bite of food, chew, talk, or exist without mild to severe discomfort. And in case you're thinking about herpes, do note: a canker sore is not a contagious virus like a cold sore. But it sure does make life miserable.
The healing of said canker sore couldn't have come at a more welcome time, because it allowed me to fully enjoy (without pain!) the Fuyu Persimmon Bundt Cake we made with the persimmons we foraged and froze last month. Recipes for Fuyu persimmons were hard to come by, but this one (originally published in Sunset magazine in the 1970's) is a winner, so I want to share it with anyone else who has or will have a persimmon surplus on their hands.

This cake is my kind of dessert - old-fashioned, humble, unassuming, yet fabulous in an understated way. The warm spiced cake is marbled with moist chunks of fruit, raisins and nuggets of walnut. I added on a simple cream cheese frosting to dress it up a bit and it was a perfect conclusion to a January evening.

Fuyu Persimmon Bundt Cake

Grease and flour a bundt cake pan. Preheat oven to 350.
Blend 2 tsp. baking soda into 3 cups of chopped firm Fuyus. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat 1/2 cup soft butter with 1 2/3 cups sugar. Add 2 eggs, 2 tsp. lemon juice, and 2 tsp. vanilla and beat until fluffy. Stir in Fuyu mix.

Sift together 2 cups flour, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. ground cloves, 1 tsp. cinnamon, and 1/2 tsp. nutmeg. Stir flour into Fuyu mixture just until blended. Add 1 cup chopped walnuts and 3/4 cup raisins.
Pour into prepared bundt pan. Bake at 350 for 55 - 60 minutes or until toothpick tests clean. Cool in pan 15 minutes. Turn onto rack.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On Food and Memory

I feel the same way about produce as this girl

I remember a while back, my friend Heidi showing me an article by Andrew Knowlton, aka "the hot guy from Bon Appetit magazine". This was my introduction to the man known as The Foodist.

In perusing one of the lucky 25-cent magazines I scored from the library, I saw a Foodist column in which he posed a thought-provoking question: What is your first food memory? (His was Halloween candy, by the way.)

The question got me reflecting on my own earliest edible memories. While food played an influential role in my life, it took me a while to sort through all of the memories. I find it increasingly hard to pinpoint specific time frames in the expansive, mostly unstructured pool of memories that constitutes My Childhood.

I came up with two experiences, although I couldn't tell which one came first, but both occurred while my parents I lived in a tiny rented house built in the 1940's.

The first is more like a series of experiences that have merged into one collective memory. It is cold, dark, early in the morning, wintertime. My father and I huddle in front of the wall-mounted space heater eating the same breakfast every day: Cheerios with milk, topped with either canned applesauce, or browning bananas that were seemingly always overripe. Strange - to this day I still dislike all of those foods, individually but especially collectively.

The second memory occurred in the summertime. I am sitting on a couch bathed in golden sunlight, with freshly picked apricots from the tree in our backyard. I am engaged in the process of learning how to twist the two halves apart and pick out the brown pit, then sink my teeth into the blissfully sweet flesh. The contrast of these two memories perhaps proved prophetic: to this day, I still prefer the weather and food of summer.

What's your earliest food memory?

Simple Pleasures

Last night after yoga class, I swung by the library to pick up an audio CD by Anne Lamott that I had on hold. I walked by the Friends of the Library stand and behold, there sat three shiny good-as-new copies of Bon Appetit. For 25 cents each.

Later that night, as I lay in bed under a down comforter and flipped through the pages, I realized that Molly Wizenburg, whose book "A Homemade Life" I just finished and enjoyed, writes a column for the magazine. Hm, I just might need a subscription.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Something To Look Forward To

Farmer's markets make me happy

January is hard.
December is cheery with the holidays and, in my family, two birthdays (mine and my dad’s). Then, along comes January. This year reminds me of my freshman year of high school, the year all the weatherman could talk about was El Nina and I swear it rained for 6 months straight, daily. In other words, it’s cold. It’s dark. It’s gloomy. Valentine’s Day is still far away and sometimes it feels like there’s not much to look forward to.

I decided that’s what I need this week: something to look forward to. For now, I’m setting my sights on the Farmer’s Market this Saturday, and plotting our meals for the rest of the week. Here’s the game plan:

Tonight: Sweet Potato and Beef Stir Fry with Vietnamese Flavors. This is from my new Food Matters cookbook, and I’m intrigued by the idea of a stir fry made with sweet potatoes.

Wednesday: Fava Bean Soup with Winter Greens. So, I have this bag of fava beans leftover from when we made falafel and I found this recipe for an Italian soup that will help me use them up. Even better, it calls for celeriac, giving me an excuse to eat a new vegetable that I’ve never tried before.

Thursday: Indian-style Cauliflower with Ginger and Cashews. This is a Splendid Table recipe, which I receive by e-mail weekly. Say, there’s one more thing to look forward to!

Friday: Greek-syle burgers with spinach and brown rice. This is a Mark Bittman recipe, and we’re going to give a whirl to his healthier take on this classic American dish. We're using grass-fed beef and topping them with mild sheepsmilk feta.
There. I think I've officially convinced myself that I have something to look forward to.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Restaurant Review: Pizza at Onespeed

What is a blogger's worst nightmare after planning a special dinner at a fabulous restaurant you've been wanting to try for some time? Forgetting your camera. Sadly, thus was my fate when I enjoyed a recent dinner with friends at a highly acclaimed, immensely popular pizza place called Onespeed for my birthday. So I've borrowed a few pictures to help illustrate my visit, although I didn't get the shots I wanted to.

One of the first and coolest things you'll notice about the laid-back ambiance may be the gorgeous wood-fired oven, decorated with a colorful mosaic-like pattern. It's beauty and art meets utility.

Onespeed is the newest project by Rick Mahon, local celebrity chef and powerhouse behind one of the most well-established restaurants in town, the Waterboy. Featuring French-style food, the Waterboy is the kind of place where you will find sweetbreads on menu... and people rave about them. I see Onespeed as poor man's- ok, middle class man's - Waterboy. You get the high quality ingredients and thoughtfulness in the way they're assembled, in a more casual atmosphere and with a less expensive price tag.

Paul and I arrived earlier than the rest of our party, and while we waited we ordered the fries with aioli dipping sauce, having heard them praised. We knew we were in for a treat at first bite- the fries were fluffy inside, and thick aioli mildly redolent of garlic; each element was a perfect specimen of what it was supposed to be, and compellingly addictive.

Later, after being joined by our friends and ordering a myriad of mix and matched pizzas, we found further satisfaction in a chopped salad made special by hearty chunks of blue cheese, applewood bacon, and homemade croutons. We liked all of our pizzas, from the crispy, medium-thick crust to the creative toppings ranging from sheepsmilk cheese and spinach to arugula, sauteed mushrooms and artisan prosciutto (see below). For dessert, my apple cranberry crisp with vanilla bean gelato was just right, not too sweet nor too monstrously big.

Lately, there seems to be a rash of restaurants that connect pizza with cycling. There were hard core cyclist discussing vintage bikes standing near our table at one point. I also noted that the pizza delivery guy actually transports the pizza by bike. (He must deliver fairly close by.) This one was a winner, and we will be back.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Starry Night in San Francisco

This weekend, we spent a day in San Francisco and saw Part II of the Impressionist Exhibit at the De Young Museum. This later half included a few later paintings by Cezanne, Renoir and some of the original Impressionist artists; but mostly showed how the painters who came after them took what their predecessors had done and came up with their own style.

Movements by the Nabi, Symbolists, and Pointillist groups were described, and crowds came out to view major works by Gauguin, Van Gogh, and more. Tickets got quite difficult to come by, and tickets for Saturday sold out a week beforehand. By far, the most crowded wing was that spotlighting the work of Van Gogh.

Above is a self-portrait by the artist, whose painting career lasting a surprisingly brief 10 years, during which he was plagued by unpopularity both with the public and with other painters due to his eccentric ways. (He died at age 37.) Up close, his eyes look like two hollow holes drilled into his face.

While living in Paris as a painter (a painting of his own room above), Van Gogh was financially dependent on his brother Theo, who supported him both monetarily and through letters of encouragement. Over 600 of their letters still exist today, providing great insight concerning Van Gogh's intention in his paintings.

In Starry Night Over the Rhone, Van Gogh used the stars to represent the heavens and the gaslights below to symbolize the world of men. A pair of lovers witness the night at the bottom of the canvas.

As I waded through the crowd to see the Van Goghs, I heard an intelligent-sounding woman discoursing upon the background of Van Gogh's work and painting style. I turned around, thinking perhaps a tour group was being conducted. Instead, I saw a middle-aged woman (mom? grandma?) leading a small girl, 7 at oldest, towards the famous display.

I had to smile at that. Maybe she is the kind of person who burns with a desire to let everyone know how much she knows (even a child who would probably rather be watching SpongeBob Squarepants that morning). Or perhaps she is a proud (grand?)parent yearning to imbue her offspring with her hard-earned knowledge of art.

The last exchange I heard was the woman explaining why the public disliked Van Gogh's work, how they thought the thick paint he slathered on the canvas was wasteful. The girl looked at the canvas, considered it; then piped up, "Well, I like it!" I couldn't agree with her more.

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Additions to Cookbook Collection

This year, my Christmas haul was exceedingly heavy on the side of cookbooks and food memoirs- and I am pleased as punch about that fact. Some books are made to be looked at an appreciated visually, and that’s enough. I have been known to eat a homely meal happily as long as I may do so while indulging in a particularly delicious-looking cookbook. Other cookbooks are more practical, with healthy ways to incorporate goals for the new year into busy, every day life.

And food memoirs connect personal stories with the foods associated with them. I am currently immersed in Molly Wizenberg’s “A Homemade Life” and enjoying getting to know the famous blogger known as Orangette. (I know, she’s been around for like 6 years - I’m a little behind, but working on catching up.) I became fascinated with M.F.K. Fisher and her unique, historically intriguing essays when I read her short book "How To Cook A Wolf", and look forward to reading more of her now that I have her collected works, "The Art of Eating".

Anyway, here are a few of my new treasures that I will be adding to my collection:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My Loftiest Goal for 2011

It seems that my life is continually coming full circle. Some of the earliest memories I can recall are of helping my mom in the backyard garden: digging in the soil with a small trowel; examining worms (until I saw an episode of Star Trek in which worms were served for dinner and decided they were an unspeakably disgusting species); and picking sweet red strawberries, which we sliced and served over angel food cake with whipped cream. Ok, Cool Whip. (It was the 80's.)

Again, just after graduating college and shortly before leaving for my two year sojourn in Hong Kong, I vividly recall preparing my parents’ garden for a spring garden. Sitting in the dirt, talking with my dad about life and what was to come: this image played through my mind innumerable times as I adjusted with difficulty to life in an urban Asian city of skyscrapers and cement.

In the past year, I have re-discovered a sense of amazement in gardening- the sense of wonder at the potential of one tiny seed, the beauty of crumbling black rich earth, the fulfillment of participating in growing your own food. One of my most lofty goals for 2011 is to grow or glean as much of our own food as possible; to can, preserve or share whatever excess we may incur. For this, we will need access to more than just our apartment patio container garden.

So past months have included many concerted efforts to amend the soil in my parents’ clay-like garden plot, which hasn’t produced anything worth eating in years. Manure, fallen leaves, and green matter have all been added to the area, and lush green grass now covers most of the plot - a very promising sign. This week I put in my order for heirloom seeds. It’s not even February, and I am already itching to see what I can coax out of the earth and into my belly.

What will you plant this year?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Whole Wheat Bread - The Minimalist Way

My husband knows me too well. He was dead on in his birthday gift for me last week, picking out a cookbook that I hadn't even mentioned to him but is, nonetheless, the kind of thing I am totally into: Mark Bittman's "The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living". Most of the recipes involve vegetables, whole grains, and occasionally a small garnish of meat. Better for the environment, for the world, for our bodies - doesn't that sum up most of our New Year's Resolutions?

Known as the Minimalist in his food column for the New York Times, Bittman has a way of simplifying cooking. Take, for example, his recipe for REAL whole wheat bread (no cheating using part bread flour; this is what he calls an "honest loaf"!). His method requires no kneading, merely a process of "stir-wait-pour-bake". The resulting bread is dense and flavorful, and I love that it's so low-maintenance you could mix it in the morning on a work day and bake it when you get home. We ate ours with Stew and Minestrone Soup. Thank goodness there's still such a thing as an honest loaf in this world!

Real Whole Wheat Bread

3 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp. instant yeast
2 tsp. salt
2 T. olive oil or vegetable oil

Combine the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Add 1 1/2 c. water and stir until blended; the dough should be quite wet, almost like a batter (add more water if it seems dry). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest in a warm place for at least 12 (or up to 24) hours. the dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Rising time will be shorter at warmer temperatures, a bit longer if your kitchen is chilly.

2. Use some of the oil to grease a 9x5 inch loaf pan. Scoop the dough into the loaf pan and use a rubber spatula to gently settle it in evenly. Brush or drizzle the top with the remaining oil. Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled, an hour or 2 depending on the warmth of your kitchen. (It won't reach the top of the pan, or will just barely.) When it's almost ready, heat the oven to 350F.

3. Bake the bread until deeply brown and hollow-sounding when tapped, about 45 minutes. Immediately turn the loaf out of the pan onto a wire rack and let cool before slicing.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

What We Did In Santa Cruz

Our family always takes the week after Christmas off for a vacation to the California coast. This year found us in a beach house in Watsonville, near Santa Cruz, where we got to see mornings like this:
and sunsets like this:

And ate food like this (pizza from Smoqe, featuring pulled pork, sweet onion, fresh cubes of pineapple, and BBQ sauce):
And like this authentic Brazilian food (salt cod with traditional accompaniments pictured below):
We went bird watching at an estuary:

Watched sea lions off of Santa Cruz boardwalk wharf:

And hiked in Natural Bridges State Park-

where each winter monarch butterflies congregate in a grove of eucalyptus trees.

Best of all, we celebrated the new year and new possibilities, together!

Happy New Year, from us to you!