Sunday, January 31, 2010

Busy living and lazy blogging!

Fortunately for my reputation, I did NOT make a New Year's resolution to be more diligent with my blogging. In lieu, I swooned with a blue moon over the Tribune, plus got strewn off some tunes and ate prunes with two spoons. 2010 is going to be big. And I will be writing all about it. As of late, however, my plate has been literally and figuratively quite full. So as I have done before, and hope to not make a habit of, I will post a slurry of "update" photos.

Swedish food with Heidi and Morgan and Parker happened...

Pork stir-frys happened...

CSA boxes are now delivered to my front doorstep...

Asian meatballs and late harvest Cline happened...

Shredded chicken with chanterelles, and orange cumin veggies HAPPENED...

Fried pork chops with braised cabbage and yam fries, accompanied by a bottle of Domaine des Cassangoles Gros Manseng definitely happened...

Cajun sausages (from Corralitos Meat Market) with "dirty" rice, green salad, Oakley four whites from Cline...oui qui est arrivé!

Cuban ckicken with tostones and green salad también pasó. ¡Seguro mi socio!

Pan roasted trout with sun-dried tomato, roasted apple, and sparkling wine compote...

and a bright green salad with honey mustard vinaigrette, happened.

Tonight, Chinese food happened. Beef and green chile stir-fry, sauteed bok choi, wilted cabbage salad, and rice vermicelli.

Yes, it all happened. I was there. Most of it was damn good, and I hope to tell you more soon. At least I pulled some photos off, which I suppose has been my focus as of late, seeing as I am supposed to hang a show of my photography (and my fabulous girlfriend's photos & paintings!) in 2 days. If you happen to be in Santa Cruz, drop by Drunk Monkeys during February (2010) and check it out!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Salt-seared Ahi Tuna and Ricotta Gnocchi

This was certainly one of the most exciting meals I have made in a while. Exciting partly because everything tasted so good, but mostly because of the new toy my brother his wife gave me for Christmas. Behold, my Himalayan Pink Salt Plate:What is Himalayan salt? Himalayan salt comes from the Khewra Salt Mines in Pakistan. It is extracted by hand as the use of dynamite is prohibited in order to preserve the structure of the crystals. Today's common salt is chemically refined; all of the natural minerals are removed and reduced only to sodium and chloride. This process made the salt unhealthy. Himalayan Salt however, is pre-pollution and without environmental impact. It is identical in minerals to the ancient primal ocean with all the minerals and trace elements our body needs. These natural minerals are identical to the minerals which our bodies have evolved with (info taken from spring mountain naturals).

Himalayan Pink salt plates, bricks, slabs and chunks are an exciting way to utilize this special salt. The salt imparts a delicate salty flavor to the foods you cook or serve, but its density prevents your food from becoming overly salty. The pure taste and abundant minerals make this salt both more flavorful and healthier than processed salts. I heated mine in the oven which, I found out later, was the wrong thing to do (oops). I should have heated it directly on my gas burner over low heat for 15 minutes, then increased to medium for another 15 minutes. See for complete instructions or to order your own salt plate!

Once my salt plate was hot (like I said, I put it in the oven), I put it on a trivet and simply placed my tuna directly on top. No salt, no pepper, no oil, no nothin'. Check it out:

A couple of minutes on one side and you could see it searing (photo at right). A gentle flip, then a couple minutes more on the other side, and it was nicely seared. In all honesty I could/should have cooked it less, maybe a minute per side. I had prepared a couple of simple dipping sauces; a bagna cauda (galic, anchovy, olive oil) and a spicy tomato vinaigrette. After one bite of the tuna, though, both Lissa and agreed that it needed nothing else. High quality fresh Ahi tuna and a hot salt plate: dinner.

I didn't stop at the tuna, however. I had some ricotta cheese in the fridge left over form a calzone we made the night before, and I decided to make some pan fried ricotta gnocchi. Now, I've seen lots of recipes for ricotta gnocchi, but none of them matched the way I first encountered them in Cafe Mare. At Mare, we made a light, mostly ricotta, mixture that we piped out of a pastry bag and served them in a spinich mousse. I made something similar in that I used a pastry bag to pipe out the gnocchetti. I used about a 2 cups of ricotta, 1 beaten egg, 1/4 cup of flour, morel salt, pepper, and copped parsley. I pan fried them in a couple tablespoons of olive oil, flipping them once browned on one side, then let them drain on a wire rack. I tossed them in some black truffle olive oil and more chopped parsley. Three words for you: de, lish, us. They are so light, and have such a wonderful texture, and the flavors of the morels and truffle were just lovely.

We had to round things out with a green salad of course, and round things out it did. It really turned out to be a beautiful meal. My new salt plate is so cool! They're not too expensive, and with proper care can last for years. I'm definitely looking forward to next my salt plate session. My curiosity has also peaked with regard to salt soles (proounced so-layz).

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Butternut Squash: Day 2

After I made the squash soup, I still had half of a butternut left over. We were fixin' to have a spectacular meal (post to follow), but I forget to get something sweet for dessert. Lissa suggested that I "just whip something up." So while she was on a walk with our dog Henry I did just that. I had everything I needed for a soufflé.

Yes, that's it, a butternut squash soufflé. This will be a dessert soufflé, though I found many recipes for a savory butternut squash soufflé. I used a couple of different recipes as reference, but then just created my own monster in the end. What a lovely monster, indeed.

I mashed up all of my remaining squash, first with just a fork. Then, once I added my egg yolks (3 of them) and 'bout a 1/2 cup of maple syrup, I whisked it with my handy-dandy new hand blender whisk attachment. A sprinkle of cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg, and I was ready for my egg whites.

Now, I have successfully made quite a few soufflés in my day, and they are really not that difficult. This one turned out great and I didn't even follow a recipe. Having said that, however, there are definitely guidelines and tricks that will help you turn out the best possible soufflé. Click on this link to read a post on Heidi Swanson's fabulous blog about Madame Saint-Ange's soufflé techniques. She has another post devoted to the proper method of whisking egg whites. One simple trick that I normally apply when making soufflés is to use an extra egg white. So here for example, I employed 4 whites to my 3 yolks (save the extra yolk to make potato pancakes or a mini-meatloaf or something).

Gently fold in the whites, taking note that your mixture need not be completely homogeneous. Little bits of white here and there will actually help your soufflé rise. The whole point of folding is to not expel all of the air bubbles you've just worked into your egg whites. Done. We've just to prepare the ramekins and then bake (which can happen later, or even in the next few days). Grease the bottom and sides of the ramekins with butter, and then coat with sugar. I got a wild hair and used brown sugar, which ended up clumping because of the moisture of the sugar, but proved to not be a problem in the end. Plus, I wanted a bit of molasses to accent all of those rich caramely flavors in the squash and the syrup. Pour the mixture into your ramekins leaving space at the top so the soufflés can rise. They will keep in the fridge until you are ready to use them (within a few days). I baked them at 350° for 30 minutes, being patient enough to not open the oven door and let all of my heat out! Carefully remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Butternut Squash: Day 1

More soup was needed. Our Christmas meal (see last post) was delicious and fulfilling, but rain continued to fall in Santa Cruz and another pot of soup was in our forecast. This time, butternut squash would be the star of the show. I decided to roast the squash, which caramelizes the sugars and really enhances the nutty flavor. Split down the middle and scoop out the seeds (save the seeds to roast too). To add some extra sweetness and depth, I peeled and cored an apple, and roasted it along with the skvash. I put them on a baking sheet and covered it with foil. Then into a 375° oven for 45 minutes to an hour, or until tender.

The seeds we reserved are going to get some oven love as well. I tossed them in olive oil, salt, pepper, chipotle powder, and minced orange peel. Turn the oven down to 300° and use the same baking sheet once you're done with the squash. The seeds only need to toast for about 5 minutes. They might start to pop on you, like they did for me, but I don't think I let the oven cool down enough before I put them in. Once nicely browned, I scattered the seeds on a paper towel and set them aside.

On to the base. I opted not for the classic mirepoix, but instead for a pile of sliced shallots. Shallots have a mild flavor, and I thought they would work nicely with the flavors in this soup.

So these sliced shallots get sauteed over medium heat in a couple tablespoons of butter and a couple tablespoons of wild sage olive oil. I bought this bottle at a farmer's market years back and every time I finish it, I simply refill it with fresh oil. The bottle says that the sage is harvested in the Mayacamas Mountains of Northern Napa Valley but doesn't specify the type. It looks and smells like Salvia clevelandii to me, but I'm not certain. It doesn't look like Big Paw is still making this flavored oil, but they do have plenty of other oils and other grub on their website. Of course, you can always make your own flavored oils at home, but you must take care to do it safely. I usually stick to purchasing flavored oils and infuse vinegars, liquors, salts, sugars and the like.

Anyways, the shallots get sauteed in butter and sage oil (which smells fabulous by the way) until translucent and then I dump in my squash, which I had peeled and diced after it cooled. I ended up using 1 and 1/2 squash, and saving the other half for...well, the next post! Next, pour in a 1/2 cup or so of brandy. This will further develop our deep caramely flavors. I grated some nutmeg, sprinkled some salt, and cracked some pepper into the pot, then poured in my stock. I think chicken or veggie stock works best here, but I happened to have the stock I made from the Christmas ham bone so I used that. I used enough stock so that the squash was just covered. I didn't want too much liquid because I wanted this soup to be thick. Once everything came up to a boil I turned the heat off and blended with my hand blender until smooth. With the blender running I added a 1/2 cup of half and half, checked the seasoning (it needed more salt) and served with an extra drizzle of sage oil and a handful of the toasted seeds. Served with a big salad on the side, it was a welcome second soup supper. Many more to come I am sure.