Saturday, March 31, 2012

Filhos (Portuguese Doughnuts)

When I was a child, our family took a trip every year to the coast where we would relax in a beach house for a week. This 4 hour car ride was always preceded by a breakfast of store-bought orange juice (Sunny D - blech) and doughnuts. Since I always got motion sickness on the drive, it turned me off of doughnuts for my entire childhood- not a bad thing, health-wise, but quirky.

There was one kind of doughnut that I still loved, however, that tasted nothing like store-bought doughnuts to my young palate - my mom's homemade Portuguese doughnuts, called filhos. Apparently they are a traditional Christmas treat in Portugal, but my mom made them for us whenever the inclination took her, but usually on a lazy Saturday morning.

We made some this weekend and I was amazed all over again at just how many I can stuff down my throat without feeling heavy or weighted down like I do with just one store-bought American doughnut. We make our filhos round by using a cookie dough scooper, and roll them in cinnamon-sugar after frying, but plain white sugar is more traditional I suppose. I understand some versions use pumpkin; ours do not. The only hard part is waiting for them to rise, but we have cheated on that part too and still enjoyed the results. So good, people! So good.


6 cups flour
6 tsp. yeast (I know right? It's a lot, but it's right.)
1/2 c. sugar
8 eggs, beaten, at room temperature
2 c. milk, warmed
1/2 c. butter, melted
1/2 tsp. salt

1. Mix all ingredients together with hands for 5 minutes until dough is smooth.

2. Let rise for 1 hour.

3. Pull off various size pieces and fry in hot oil (we use canola).

4. Drain on paper towels and roll in sugar. Enjoy!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spanish Dinner Party

Lately, all I can think about is Spain. While we save our pennies in hopes of a trip in the distant future, I'm focusing on what I can enjoy now: the food of Spain.

We had a Spanish-themed dinner party this weekend, complete with a brand new paella pan, gazpacho, and an Orange-Olive Oil Cake for dessert. Everything was fantastic, further convincing me that me and Spain, we're meant to be.

My paella was based off of this version by Tyler Florence. I simplified it, halving the rice and liquid amounts, and sticking with chicken, chorizo and shrimp. I think it looked beautiful in presentation and, despite some last minute panicking over uncooked chicken on top of burning rice, it came out very close to perfect in the end. (Whew! Always scary making a new recipe for company.) While it's not cheap, paella makes such a wonderful dish for entertaining and I can't wait to try new variations.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Flavors of Asia Cooking Class

Mai Pham with her cooking assistant, shown
behind her cookbook and signature sauces

I joined the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op this year, after admiring from afar for a long time and even taking a few outstanding classes there in the past. (Like this one on Pie Making, and another on Raised Bed Gardening.)

This week I got to attend a cooking class on the Flavors of Asia taught by Mai Pham, an expert in Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. Mai teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, owns many restaurants all over the country, has published a cookbook, makes her own line of sauces, and is a bit of a local celebrity. She has been on Martha Stewart and kicked off her class by showing us a segment she did on the Food Network to give us a feel for the cuisine of Southeast Asia.

Mai was very professional and pleasant, and even brought her 86-year-old, very spry-looking father to the class with her. Her grandmother, she confided, lived to be 105 years old and credited her longevity to a vegetarian diet and lots of coconut milk, which the Vietnamese associate with high immunity levels.

Mai also stressed the importance of moderation in all things, confessing that she has to work hard to keep balanced. For example, if she wants to eat ice cream for dessert, her family will eat a simple, light dinner such as stir-fried vegetables and brown rice before indulging.

Mai demonstrated and let us sample several dishes during the course of the class, as well as teaching some basic techniques like assembling and rolling salad rolls, and cutting herbs and vegetables gently to avoid bruising. She showed us how to make:

* Salad Rolls with Shrimp and Pork, with a Peanut Hoisin Sauce

* Yellow Curry with Tofu and Eggplant

* Singapore Noodles Topped with Stir-Fried Asian Greens

* Caramel Pork with Egg and Daikon

My favorite dishes were the Yellow Curry and Singapore Noodles, but I enjoyed them all. Before heading home, I hopped around the corner to the Co-Op to pick up a jar of Lemongrass Kitchen brand Yellow Curry Sauce, a concentrated base which makes 3-4 batches of curry. I can't wait to try my hand at this at home!

Here is Mai Pham's recipe for the Yellow Curry with Tofu and Eggplant. It's crazy good; I've never liked a vegetarian curry so much! It also taught me one thing I've done wrong in the past - adding raw vegetables to my curry has added too much water and diluted the flavor, so that I never felt that my curries at home matched up with the restaurant versions. Blanching the vegetables ahead of time solves this problem. Also, she explained that frying the tofu ahead of time so that it gets a "skin" allows it to absorb sauces better. This recipe would be perfect for summertime, when eggplant, tomatoes, green beans and zucchini are all in season.

1/4 c. Lemongrass Kitchen Thai Yellow Curry Sauce
1.5 c. coconut milk
1/2 lb. firm tofu, pan-seared or lightly fried, cut into 2/3x2"x1/12" pieces
2 c. eggplant, Japanese preferably, halved lengthwise then cut into 1/2 " half moon pieces
3 Roma tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges
1/2 c. green beans, 1" lengths, blanched
1/2 c. zucchini, bite sized pieces, blanched
2 tsp. Thai chilies, cut on the diagonal into thin slices (optional)
1/2 c. frozen peas
10 Thai basil leaves (optional)

1. In a saucepan, combine LGK Thai Curry Sauce Concentrate with coconut milk and cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a low boil.
2. Add tofu, eggplant and tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes.
3. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until all vegetables start to soften, another 2-3 minutes.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sacramento Food Film Festival

"Wait, Sacramento is having a Food Film Festival?" I thought in amazement. Discovering this event felt like someone designed and custom tailored a city-wide event according to my own personal interests. Even better, it meant that these issues were of interest not just to me, but to a much larger local community.

So today, off I went to the Guild Theater (pictured above) for a morning full of educational documentaries on the US food system. You might be thinking that this could put you to sleep, but in reality, it is a universal subject that affects each and every human being in our country, because seriously: we all need to eat. What we choose to eat and how speaks volumes about our values.

The three films I viewed were all awesome. I saw:

* The Last Crop: This locally filmed documentary followed a local husband-and-wife team (the Mains, above) who have organically run Good Humus Farm in the Central Valley since 1976. The film focuses on their struggle to obtain a land easement that would conserve their farmland for future generations. Their criteria: The land must be farmed, organically, by farmers who live on the land.

There were lots of fun interviews done locally here at the Davis Farmer's Market and local Natural Foods Co-Ops. Most surprising to me was how little California land is being conserved for farming - shocking, considering how much of the world our state provides with year-round produce!

* Dive: I expected this indie documentary to be another homage to the joys of "freeganism" - you know, hipsters retrieving gourmet delights from dumpsters, bemoaning our consumerism and wasteful society, eating like king's off of other people's only semi-expired meat, eggs, produce and dairy products...

I was only half right.

While the creator of the film starts off gloating over the spoils of his dumpster-diving expeditions, his perspective evolves to questioning why the still-good food isn't being donated to local charities and food banks. I learned that under the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act passed by Bill Clinton, grocery stores are protected from being sued for giving away their excess food to non-profits.

Yet many stores remain overly conservative, only giving away bread and dry goods while valuable fresh goods spoil in dumpsters. The film director hopes to foster ties between grocery stores and the truly needy of society so that the 30 million tons of wasted food our country produces each year can go to a better use than sitting in landfills.

* Lunch Line: This film sought to understand our school lunch system: where it came from (the government's desire to use excess food during the Great Depression), how it changed over the years (it became free to all but received no additional funding), and what needs to change now.

I had never stopped to think about school lunch as a form of socialism, but I learned that when it was first implemented, that's how some folks saw it and why they didn't like it. This film was entertaining and funny - the creation of the school lunch program is explained in terms of Twilight - yes, that's right, werewolves and vampires! You gotta see it to get it.

Another valuable point made that struck me is that it's one thing to jump on board the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution bandwagon and demand better school lunches, but it's another thing to find the funding to make it happen. My own school district cancelled all bus routes this week, so obviously they have significant budgetary concerns, landing school lunches near the bottom of their priority list.

A student at our local high school shared with me the following regarding his daily school lunch:

"You can get a small slice of pizza, or a smashed, nasty cheese-burger or a salad made of only iceberg lettuce. Obviously, the salad is a better choice, however, they run out before most kids even get into the line. Sure, each choice has fruits and veggies. The fruits are bruised, old, waxy and small. Oh yeah, and you only get one. The "veggies" are two or three baby carrot sticks with maybe a leaf or two of lettuce.

I have had several milks which are WAY, and I stress WAY, past due date as well. Many kids get a taco bowl for lunch which is a burnt taco bowl with super greasy, nasty meat, refried (again with the fried) beans with more iceberg lettuce and jalepenos. As a student of River City High School, I agree, they could do much, much better."

Clearly we can do better, but where is the funding going to come from? What price are we willing to pay to ensure that children (who obtain half of their calories every day at school) can be nourished? Should kids who are able to bring their own lunch from home rather than pay for rubbish? These are questions that I'll be pondering for a long time yet.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Groundhog Was Wrong

There is so much I love about life in general. Every month of the year, there is something I look forward to for the rest of the year and relish when it finally happens.

Early spring carries so many wonders with it.

This is my neighbor's cherry tree - is there a sight in the world more gorgeous than this? And it's right out my front door! I feel right indeed.
My grandma gave me some fava beans she had saved to plant in my own yard. I planted them and they are growing amazingly well so far, with almost no effort on my part. Aren't those kinds of plants the best?
Sometimes you wonder if the frost killed your plants for good or if they might come back. Looks like my Russian sage is up for another year!

My purple hyacinth bulbs are finally shooting up their conical blooms all over the place. So glad I put in the effort to plant them last fall!
My dormant blueberry plant is sprouting leaves. It lives! Hooray!