Pizza Margherita, Homemade Tomato Sauce, Homemade Ricotta

classic pizza margherita

Oh my gosh, I have so much deliciousness to report to you all, I don’t know where to begin. I suppose it all started last week after Food 52 reminded me of Marcella Hazan’s widely adored tomato sauce recipe and the NY Times reminded me of the pleasure of eating fresh ricotta cheese, a delicacy (a nonentity, really) in my neck of the woods. And then I remembered seeing a Barefoot Contessa recipe for homemade ricotta cheese on Gwyenth Paltrow’s blog, which reminded me of a different GP entry about homemade pizza, all of which has led me to so many wonderful discoveries this week. Is your head spinning?

Let me summarize:

1. Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce is every bit as delicious as everyone has claimed. I’ve never had success making tomato sauce. Never. I had accepted that jarred sauce tasted better than anything I could produce at home. That is until this past Tuesday, when I dipped my wooden spoon into my pot of gently simmering tomatoes, lifted it to my mouth, and tasted the freshest, lightest, most delectable flavors. And I have been smiling ever since. For all of you food bloggers, I know this is nothing revelatory. But friends, family, and any of you out there who have tomato sauce making fears, rest assured that you, too, can cook like an Italian grandmother. This sauce is gold.

2. Thanks to discovery #1, I’ve finally made a classic pizza margherita at home. One of my all-time favorite spots for thin-crust pizza is 2Amys in Washington D.C., which serves an incredible pizza margherita topped with a most memorable fresh tomato sauce. 2Amys Pizza was my first thought after tasting Hazan’s sauce. Now, I’ve accepted that until I build my wood burning oven, I’m not going to achieve a restaurant quality crust at home. But I no longer have an excuse for not making pizza margherita. This sauce is so damn good. I credit nothing other than the sauce for producing the pizza that emerged from my oven today. It was one of the best. Less is more is the key here: a thin layer of this sauce topped sparingly with fresh mozzarella cheese and a sprinkling of fresh basil out of the oven does the job. Yum yum yum.

3. Making fresh ricotta cheese at home is as easy as the Barefoot Contessa’s latest book promises. And it is SO delicious. I made myself nectarine and fresh ricotta bruschetta for lunch today. It was heaven. And then I remembered one of my all-time favorite pizza combinations — nectarine with basil and reduced balsamic — and made a variation of that for dinner. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to spread what’s left of my fresh ricotta on a toasted bagel and top it with one of my CSA tomatoes. I’m really living it up here.

The most fragrant purple basil freshly picked from my garden, a treat I have my brother-in-law to thank. Thanks Mr. T!
tomatoes and basil

Making tomato sauce:
making homemade tomato sauce

Straining homemade ricotta through cheesecloth:
homemade ricotta

Homemade tomato sauce and fresh ricotta cheese:
homemade ricotta and tomato sauce

Sauce approved by a silent and contemplative kitchen assistant:
Ella eats pasta

unbaked margherita pizza

Classic pizza margherita:
classic pizza margherita

classic pizza margherita

Nectarine and ricotta pizza with fresh basil:
nectarine and ricotta pizza

nectarine and ricotta pizza

Recipes
Marcella Hazen’s Tomato Sauce
Note: I watched the video on Food52 on blanching tomatoes, which I found to be helpful.

For the Sauce:

2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, peeled (see video on Food52 for guidance)
5 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
Salt to taste

1. Place the prepared fresh tomatoes in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow, but steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until it is thickened to your liking and the fat floats free from the tomato.

2. Stir from time to time, mashing up any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and correct for salt.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese
Source: The Barefoot Contessa via Goop
Serves: Makes about 2 cups

4 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons good white wine vinegar

1. Set a large sieve over a deep bowl. Dampen (or don’t) 2 layers of cheesecloth with water and line the sieve with the cheesecloth.

2. Pour the milk and cream into a stainless steel or enameled pot. Stir in the salt. Bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar. Allow the mixture to stand for 1 minute until it curdles. It will separate into thick parts (the curds) and milky parts (the whey).

3. Pour the mixture into a cheesecloth-lined sieve and allow it to drain into the bowl at room temperature for 20 to 25 minutes, occasionally discarding the liquid that collects in the bowl. The longer you let the mixture drain, the thicker the ricotta. Transfer the ricotta to a bowl, discarding the cheesecloth. Save the whey — you can make bread with it. Use the ricotta immediately or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The ricotta will keep refrigerated for 4 to 5 days.

Classic Pizza Margherita
Dough yields 4 pizzas serving 3 to 4 people total

1 recipe pizza dough (follow instructions here)
1 recipe tomato sauce
fresh mozzarella cheese
fresh basil leaves, sliced thinly after pizza is removed from oven

Nectarine and Fresh Ricotta Pizza
Dough yields 4 pizzas serving 3 to 4 people total

1 recipe pizza dough (follow instructions here)
1 recipe Homemade Ricotta Cheese (recipe below)
1-2 nectarines
olive oil
fresh basil leaves, sliced thinly after pizza is removed from oven

Homemade Ricotta
Source: The Barefoot Contessa via Goop
Serves: Makes about 2 cups

4 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons good white wine vinegar

1. Set a large sieve over a deep bowl. Dampen (I don’t dampen — I just line my sieve with cheesecloth) 2 layers of cheesecloth with water and line the sieve with the cheesecloth.

2. Pour the milk and cream into a stainless steel or enameled pot. Stir in the salt. Bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar. Allow the mixture to stand for 1 minute until it curdles. It will separate into thick parts (the curds) and milky parts (the whey).

3. Pour the mixture into a cheesecloth-lined sieve and allow it to drain into the bowl at room temperature for 20 to 25 minutes, occasionally discarding the liquid that collects in the bowl. The longer you let the mixture drain, the thicker the ricotta. (I tend to like mine on the thicker side but some prefer it moister.) Transfer the ricotta to a bowl, discarding the cheesecloth. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The ricotta will keep refrigerated for 4 to 5 days. Note: You can use the whey to make bread and other things — don’t chuck it.

nectarine and ricotta pizza

Corn Fritters

corn fritters

Oh, where to begin, where to begin. I saw this recipe in last weekend’s WSJ’s food section and began foaming at the mouth. Look at this picture. Do those corn cakes not look perfect to you? Golden brown, loaded with corn — I just want to reach my hand through the computer and snatch one.

The recipe, credited to London’s Yotam Ottolenghi, sounded fantastic, too. So, I set to work scraping kernels from the cob of our delectable CSA corn and finely dicing the most beautiful hot peppers I have every seen and mixing a batter of polenta and Greek yogurt and olive oil and cilantro. The mixture looked divine — colorful, fragrant and perfect in consistency. This is exactly where I should have paused.

But I didn’t. I continued on with the recipe and delicately folded in 3 whipped egg whites. And then I proceeded to fry up corn pancakes, delicious in every which way, but not what I was looking for. I wanted fritters, not pancakes, and I won’t belabor this point any further since I just went through my fritter-vs-pancake preferences with you all with these guys.

But all was not lost. In an attempt to rectify the remaining batter (I had cooked 8 pancakes at this point), I added an additional ear of corn kernels to the batter and then violently stirred, attempting to deflate the effect of the whipped egg whites.

Success. Total succcess. I mean, I definitely have a thing for fritters these days, but these corn-laden crispy cakes are simply irresistible. I served them aside broiled fish but I love the idea of making them the star of the meal, serving them with a simple salad tossed in a citrus vinaigrette, which is how Ottolenghi suggests. I should note, too, that the batter — the egg white-deflated fritter batter, that is — can be made ahead. Once I achieved the consistency I was looking for, I set my batter bowl in the fridge until dinner time. Yum yum yum.

If you think this recipe sounds yummy, check out this one, too:Watercress with Egg, Goat Cheese & Seeds. Sounds divine. These two Ottolenghi recipes are part of a four “easy-enough” recipe series. The final one will be printed this weekend. Looking forward to it!

Peppers from our Olin-Fox Farm CSA:
peppers from our CSA

The first batch of fritters I made came out looking like pancakes. You can see in this picture below how those whipped egg whites produced a puffy pancake versus a fritter. After cooking 8 pancakes, I added another whole ear of corn kernels to the batter. At this point, the batter was considerably more corny, and the effect of the whipped egg whites, minimal. Next time around, whipped egg whites will be omitted — they seem unnecessary.

corn pancakes

Corn Fritters
Adapted from: The Wall Street Journal
Note: Yotam Ottolenghi, the creater of these corn cakes, serves them with a light salad of arugula and cilantro. Find the original recipe here.

SERVES: 4

½ cup quick-cooking polenta, or fine-ground cornmeal
1¼ cups corn kernels, cut from 1-2 ears of corn*
1 small shallot, diced fine (about 3 tablespoons)
1 small jalapeño, seeds and membrane removed, diced fine (about 2 tablespoons)
½ teaspoon cumin seeds, roughly smashed (optional — I omitted)
¾ teaspoon salt, plus extra for seasoning
¼ teaspoon black pepper, plus extra for seasoning
¾ cup full-fat Greek yogurt
1½ tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for frying
1 to 4 eggs (depending on whether you want to make a fritter or a pancake… see notes in post above and in recipe)
¼ cup chopped cilantro (or more or less to taste)

¼ cup sour cream or crème fraîche

*I ended up using 3 ears of corn to make the batter the consistency I was looking for. See notes in recipe.

NOTE: Batter can be made ahead and chilled. (After I achieved the batter consistency I was looking for, which was in the middle of the day, I stopped making fritters and put the batter in the fridge. When it was time for dinner, I took out my bowl and started making fresh fritters. Yum yum yum.)

WHAT TO DO:

1. In a large bowl mix polenta with corn, shallots, jalapeño, cumin (if using), salt and pepper. Add yogurt, 1½ tablespoons olive oil, 1 egg and chopped cilantro. Mix well with fork.

2. Here is where the “recipe” gets messy: If you like the texture of a pancake, separate the remaining 3 eggs. Place the whites in a bowl and beat to soft peaks; reserve the yolks for another purpose. Carefully fold whites into corn batter in two stages. Let rest 5 minutes. (Note: This is what I did initially. See photo directly above the recipe.) If you prefer the texture of a fritter (my preference), omit adding the whipped whites**.

3. Set large nonstick frying pan over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Pour in 1 teaspoon olive oil (or enough to just coat the bottom of the pan). Once hot, spoon 2 tablespoons of batter per cake into pan. Spread with the back your spoon to even out the batter. Make 3 to 4 fritters at a time. Season with a pinch of salt. Cook cakes 2-3 minutes, or until golden. Flip and cook 1 minute, or until golden. Season second side of fritters with a pinch of salt. Transfer to paper-lined tray. At this point, it would be wise to taste one. If you like the texture and seasoning, repeat the cooking process with the remaining batter. If you think the batter could use more corn, add more corn. If the batter needs to be bound together better, add another egg. Once you’ve achieved the right consistency, repeat the cooking process with the remaining batter or chill batter until you’re ready to start cooking.

4. Serve with sour cream or crème fraîche on the side.

Yield: about 16 cakes.

** I should note that I have not made this recipe without omitting the egg whites altogether — I simply have minimized their effect by adding an additional ear of corn to the batter and stirring aggressively to deflate their whipped texture.

This is what the batter looked like before I folded in any egg whites. I so wish I had tried making one fritter at this step.
corn fritter batter

This is what the batter looked like after I cooked 8 pancakes and then added another whole ear of corn kernels to achieve the fritter consistency I was looking for.
fritter batter

corn fritters

Zucchini Fritters with Tzatziki

zucchini fritters

I think I’m the last person on the planet to make zucchini fritters. Why it has taken me so long to give them a go I do not know. Maybe it’s that I have a general pancake-making phobia? Or that the amount of zucchini-fritter recipes I have collected over the years in addition to the blog posts I have bookmarked and the cookbook pages I have dog-eared is a wee overwhelming?

In any case, I got over it earlier this week, spurred by a revelation that helped me breeze through my zucchini-fritter recipe collection and locate a few promising recipes. My revelation, you ask? I realized I wasn’t interested in making a pancake — I wasn’t looking to make a floury, bread-crumb bound, cheese-laden pancake. I wanted something resembling a latke but composed of zucchini, which would be crisped quickly in a pan and served with something cool like sour cream or tzatziki.

The recipe here fits that description. A combination of grated zucchini and potato with a little diced onion bound by a single egg gives these fritters that lovely latke texture. But the addition of lemon zest and lots of herbs give them a freshness and lightness that’s irresistible. I served this batch with tzatziki, which accompanied them well, but which truthfully is unnecessary — they’re so good on their own. Give them a whirl! I know you’ll like them.

Batter made with zucchini from our Olin-Fox Farm CSA:
Fritter Batter

fritters in pan

cooked zucchini fritters

Zucchini Fritters with Tzatziki

Serves 2, Yield=6

2 cups coarsely grated zucchini
1/2 cup coarsely grated potato
kosher salt
pinch of flour
1 egg
1 tablespoon chopped chives (or whatever herb you like)
1 tablespoon chopped mint (or whatever herb you like)
zest of one lemon
1/4 cup diced white onion
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Tzatziki:
1 cup Greek yogurt
2 T. finely diced red onion
1 T. chopped mint
kosher salt
squeeze of lemon juice

1. Place the grated zucchini and potato in a colander. Spread the veggies out to allow for maximum surface area exposure and sprinkle all over with kosher salt. Let sit for at least 30 minutes to drain.

2. Meanwhile, make the tzatziki, if desired: Stir together yogurt, onion, mint, salt and lemon juice. Taste. Add more salt if necessary. Chill until ready to use.

3. After the 30 minutes, squeeze veggies out and wrap in paper towels. Squeeze again. [Note: The veggies will not drain out enough liquid on their own in the collander, so squeezing them with a paper towel is a critical step to mopping up that moisture.] Open up the paper towel and spread out your veggies. Sprinkle with a pinch of flour to soak up leftover moisture.

4. In a bowl, whisk together egg, herbs and lemon zest. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add onion and grated zucchini-potato mixture. Stir well.

5. Preheat over to 200˚F. Place a foil-lined cookie sheet in the oven. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter. When foam subsides, drop a spoonful of your fritter batter in. Gently pat with a spatula to flatten out the fritters, which will help make them crispy.

6. Cook about 3 fritters at a time until golden brown on each side. Place fritters in the oven while you make additional pancakes. Serve as soon as possible with tzatziki on the side.

fritters with tzatziki

Whole Roasted Garlic

Whole Roasted Garlic

Have you ever roasted a whole head of garlic? And then squeezed the sweet, soft cloves over warm French bread? And then sprinkled the spread with a bit of sea salt? It is so delectable.

Never did I imagine eating a head of garlic in one sitting. Nor did I imagine serving a head of garlic to each guest at a dinner party. It sounds ferocious. But roasting garlic whole in foil pouches with a few fresh herbs tames its bite, mellowing and sweetening its flavor, transforming it into a butter-like purée almost as tasty as salted bone barrow… yum yum yum.

Before I go any further, I have to share with you a beautiful blog, The Garden of Eden, recently launched by my friend Darcy Eden. It’s fresh and fun and filled with yummy recipes, fashionable finds and overall fantastic style. One of her posts was already picked up by Bon Appetit. Take a look — I know you’ll have fun with it!

Whole Roasted Garlic Spread on Warm Bread

Garlic & Oregano

Whole roasted garlic is a wonderful topping for warm bread but there are other uses as well: puréed and stirred into mashed potatoes; spread onto pizza; whisked into salad dressing.

Foil Pouches

Whole Roasted Garlic

Yield = How ever many heads you would like
Note: I make one foil pouch per head of garlic, but you probably could throw a couple of heads together in one pouch and have fine results.

1 head garlic
few sprigs of thyme (I used oregano here because I had no thyme on hand, but thyme is preferable)
olive oil
kosher salt

For serving:
French bread
nice salt

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Cut off the very top portion of the head of garlic to reveal a few cloves. Place garlic on a sheet of aluminum foil (large enough to wrap around the garlic in a little pouch). Nestle the herbs around the garlic. Drizzle garlic with a touch of olive oil. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Pour 2 T. of water around the head of garlic — you might want to curl up the sides of foil before doing so. Wrap the foil up into a beggar’s purse or pouch making sure the foil is sealed.

2. Place in the oven (directly on the rack or on a baking sheet) and roast for 1 hour. Remove pouches from oven and let cool briefly or tuck right in, taking care while opening the packages as steam might come pouring out.

3. Spread the garlic on warm bread; top with a pinch of salt.

Whole Roasted Garlic Spread

Crispy Kale Chips

Crispy Kale Chips

They’re sort of one of those things you have to try to believe. When a friend proclaimed she and her husband (who has been known to drive 40 minutes for his favorite burger) preferred kale chips to potato chips and even to french fries, I had my doubts. It was about time I tried for myself, however. I’ve only been reading about these crisps on the blogosphere for about 3 years.

Well, what can I say? If you think you can’t eat a head of kale in one sitting, think again. You can, and you will. In fact you might find that one head is not enough for one sitting. And you might find that 8 heads of kale from the farmers’ market won’t suffice for the week. And you might find yourself panicking mid-week, making stops to your not-so-favorite market to preemptively restock your supply. I mean it. These kale chips are that good. It would make me so happy if you tried for yourself.

Crispy Kale Chips

Serves 1 to 2

1 bunch kale*
extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt
*Of course bunches vary in size, but this recipe is not precise anyway. Also, there are many varieties of kale. I’ve made this recipe with at least 3 different varieties, and they all are delicious.

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Tear kale into smallish-sized pieces as pictured above. Toss lightly with olive oil and kosher salt. Spread evenly on a sheet tray. Don’t be afraid to fill it up — it shrinks way down while it bakes (see picture below.)

2. Place sheet tray in the oven for about 15 minutes. Reach inside being careful not to burn yourself and feel the kale pieces. They should feel slightly crispy. If the pieces are not crispy at all, keep cooking for another couple of minutes.

3. Remove sheet tray from the oven and place on cooling rack for a minute or two. Eat! Once you make this recipe once or twice, you’ll discover how long it takes for a batch to cook. Some pieces will always be overcooked; some will be undercooked; but most will be delicious! Enjoy.

Moules Marinière, So Easy A …

Moules à la Marinière

Dipping crusty bread into the broth of a pot of steaming mussels has to be one of my favorite eating experiences. You? And when a restaurant offers mussels, I’m inclined to order them because, one, I rarely make them at home, and two, they’re so damn good — when they’re good, that is.

Why I never make mussels at home confounds me, especially after trying this Balthazar recipe for Moules Marinière. It’s so easy a … ok, no need to go there. But seriously, I followed this recipe to a tee (with the exception of the freshly ground white pepper … so French), and was so pleased, I’ve now made them twice in one week.

This recipe could not be simpler: sweat shallots, garlic, celery and thyme in a stick — gasp — of butter; season with salt; add crème fraîche and white wine; bring to a boil; steam the mussels for 3 minutes; sprinkle with parsley, stir and serve with crusty bread. Voila: Moules à la Marinière.

I think these mussels would make a fun dish for entertaining.  The broth (steps 1 and 2 in the recipe) could certainly be made in advance, leaving you with no more than 3 minutes of cooking time. To complete this meal, all you need is some nice fresh bread, a simple salad, and some sort of lovely dessert. Yum.

For those of you who live in the area, I highly recommend mussels from Carlsbad Aquafarm. I’ve been purchasing them at Pelly’s Fish Market in Carlsbad but they can also be found at various farmers’ markets. Call Carlsbad Aquafarm for the details: 760 438 2444.

Also, I can’t say enough about Pelly’s Fish Market. The employees are incredibly nice and informative; I didn’t have to ask for ice; I was told to keep the bag the mussels were given to me in open so that the mussels could breathe; and I was instructed on how to store the mussels once I brought them home: in a shallow bowl, covered with a damp paper towel in the coldest part of my fridge. I’m not sure I’ve ever received such service at a fish market.

And, while I was there, I delighted in one of the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten. There was nothing gourmet about this taco — no fancy slaws or sauces — just fresh, grilled fish wrapped in a corn tortilla with some raw shredded cabbage. Delectable! The place was packed, too, always a good sign at a fish market.

Moules à la Marinière

aromatics

aromatics

balthazar

Moules à la Marinière

Serves 2 as an entrée or 6 as an appetizer
Source: The Balthazar Cookbook

8 T. unsalted butter
5 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (or diced)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced on the bias
4 sprigs thyme
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup dry white wine
2 tsp. freshly ground white pepper (I actually never added any pepper, so your call on the pepper)
4 tablespoons crème fraîche
2 lbs. mussels — Carlsbad Aquafarm mussels are delectable, if you live in the area; otherwise, Balthazar recommends Prince Edward Island
a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

bread, any kind you like, grilled or heated just before serving

1. In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over a LOW flame. Add the shallots, garlic, celery and thyme. Gently sauté for about 15 minutes until the vegetables are soft but not browned. Season with a pinch of kosher salt.

2. Add the wine, pepper (if using), and crème fraîche, and raise the heat to high.

3. Once the liquid comes to a boil, add the mussels, stir gently, and cover with a tight fitting lid. Cook for 3 minutes, or until the mussels open.

4. Add the parsley and stir gently. Serve in large bowls (remembering to discard any unopened mussels), with either crusty bread or French fries … yum.

Moules à la Marinière

Champagne & Oysters + Solvang, Los Olivos, Los Alamos, Los Angeles Get Away

oysters

Our great eating adventure 2010 began at home with champagne and oysters. Oh champagne and oysters! Is anything more celebratory? I suppose you have to like oysters. Champagne is a given. The last time Ben and I had champagne and oysters together was at Balthazar, the morning after we wed, nearly five years ago now … ahhh memories.

Anywho, last Friday, we commenced a little long weekend getaway with a dozen and a half oysters, a bottle of Piper Hiedsieck, a wedge of Tomme de Savoie, Marcona almonds, a beet salad, and grilled flatbread topped with grapes and a wee too much cheese. It was a fun little spread.

The following morning we headed north to Solvang stopping first in Los Angeles for dinner at Ganda, a Thai restaurant reviewed in the March issue of Saveur by James Oseland, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. Apparently Oseland, on a recent visit to LA, went to Ganda five days in a row for the pla duk pad ped, or crispy catfish — catfish dry-braised in galangal, Kaffir lime leaves, and an abundance of spices. He declared the dish his favorite thing to eat in LA. Strong endorsement, si or no? Well, while I can’t see myself going to Ganda five days in a row for pla duk pad ped, the dish was delicious, and Ganda didn’t disappoint. I could eat that food all night long.

Now, where I can see myself going five nights in a row is a little place called Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos, CA. Full of Life Flatbread is not dissimilar to my favorite restaurants, Bar, in New Haven, CT, and Pizzeria Mozza, in Los Angeles. What can I say? Ben and I basically fell in love over a thin-crust white clam pizza, and when a restautant offers this very pie, never are we happier. But FLF offered more than just a delectable white clam, bacon and leek flatbread. Our appetizer — a grilled asparagus and chanterelle salad tossed with prosciutto, wilted frisée and Parmigiano — couldn’t have been more delicious; neither could the wine, a local Grenache, nor our sausage, onion and cheese flatbread. Yum yum yum.

You’ve all seen Sideways, right? Well, if you visit these parts, you can do the whole Sideways tour if you’d like, stopping at the various vineyards, tasting rooms, restaurants, attractions, etc. The only Sideways spot we came close to experiencing was the Los Olivos Cafe — where Miles drunk dials his ex-wife Vicki — located in the heart of Los Olivos, an adorable town with a great lunch spot — Panino — and some great tasting rooms and shops.

Los Olivos, Los Alamos, Buellton — I can’t say enough about the whole Santa Ynez valley. It is a beautiful part of the country. Ben and I have visited the area three times now and discover new must-try spots every time. If you are looking for a wine country get away but can’t fit Napa into your budget, consider this area. It is a blast. Apparently there’s a dude ranch in the area as well. We’ll have to scope that out next time.

By the way, we stayed in a great hotel, Hotel Corque. A little photo tour of our long weekend continues below:

cheese plate

oyster

flatbread

beet salad

Piper

In Los Angeles, we stayed at the Buky House, a wonderful Bed and Breakfast located in the La Brea (maybe?) neighborhood of the city.

buky house

ben and bebeka

Downtown Solvang. We had fun cruising the streets. So did the bebeka.

Solvang

There are a ton of bakeries in Solvang each offering many Danish specialties. We particularly enjoyed the kringle and cheese danish at Olsen’s on Mission Drive.

Solvang

For lunch both days we picked up sandwiches, once at The Chef’s Touch in Solvang and once at Panino in Los Olivos. There are several nice patches of grass in Solvang as well as countless vineyards with rolling hills perfect for picnicking.

bebeka

ben and bebeka

Full of Life Flatbread in Los Olivos. Amazing restaurant. Only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A must-try spot if you are vising this area.

Full of Life Flatbread

Aebleskivers. Another must-try spot is Arne’s Famous Aebleskivers in Solvang. Arne’s is a dine-in restaurant but you can also purchase aebleskivers — pancake like donut holes — drizzled with raspberry jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar right from a walk-up window on the street. They are delicious.

aliskiver

ableskivers

Los Olivos. A beautiful little town with great tasting rooms, shops and restaurants.

Los Olivos

Panino

Tasting Room

Bridlewood Winery. Bridlewood is located in Santa Ynez. It is beautiful — a perfect spot to picnic. They only have one rule: If you picnic on their grounds, you have to drink their wine. Fair enough. We bought a bottle of Grenache to enjoy with our sandwiches from Panino. It was a beautiful afternoon.

Vineyard

Vineyard

root 246. On Monday evening, we ate at root 246. We kept it simple, splitting a caesar salad topped with a poached egg to start and sharing the burger and a Mexican flatbread as our entrées. Everything was fabulous. root 246 is a must-try spot as well.

root 246

Finally, we headed home, stopping in Los Angeles to meet a dear friend for lunch at Cafe Midi and dessert — some amazing cookies — at Milk. Isn’t Harry adorable?

Harry

In Honor of Top Chef: Padma’s Salad with Rancho Gordo Beans & Bäco Flatbreads

Padma's Salad
Early last Wednesday morning, before the premier of Top Chef Las Vegas, Padma Lakshmi made a delectable looking salad on the Today Show with Matt Lauer. She chopped up fresh spinach, mixed it with chickpeas, bell peppers and chives, and tossed it all together with olive oil and lemon juice. Served with fresh pita bread, says Padma, this “chickpea tapas” makes a wonderful whole meal.

I couldn’t agree more. Upon seeing this segment, I felt inspired to cook up some of the Ranch Gordo beans I had picked up in San Francisco earlier this month. I have been wanting to incorporate more beans — such a healthy, affordable food, filled with protein — into my diet, and this salad has proven to be a great way to do so. I made this salad two nights in a row last week with my Alubia Criollo beans and various other goodies from my CSA — arugula, cherry tomatoes, chives, shaved zucchini and chopped orange.

Beans, I am learning, are really not so much trouble to make from scratch. I soaked mine in the morning and cooked them according to the instructions on the Rancho Gordo website. I’m not a bean connoisseur, but I like RG’s description of these small white beans: Alubios have a “rich, buttery flavor and creamy, over-the-moon texture.”

I ate my salad with these Bäco flatbreads, the recipe for which I spotted in the LA Times in June 2008 and have had tacked to my fridge ever since. Bäco flatbreads, made with Greek yogurt seasoned with ginger, garlic and lime juice, are similar to the pita breads used for gyros — the pocketless pita breads. They are delicious! The recipe yields more yogurt sauce than needed, but the sauce makes a nice accompaniment to both the flatbreads and the salad. A nice little combination eaten taco style is a bäco flatbread, spread with some yogurt sauce and topped with some salad. So yummy!

Note: I omitted the lavendar and added some chives.

Bacao Flatbread

Bacao cooking in pan

salad ingredients

Here is Padma’s basic recipe. Please note, however, that Padma prefers making this with raw spinach or arugula — I used raw, chopped arugula — as opposed to cooked, which is what her recipe says to do. Also, any vegetables — tomatoes, zucchini, corn, mushrooms, etc. — can be added to this salad. A nice variety of vegetables makes for a nice variety of flavors and textures. I also used a little balsamic vinegar in addition to the fresh lemon juice.

Here is the Bäco Flatbreads recipe. I added some chives to the yogurt mixture and served some of the remaining yogurt sauce with the flatbread and the salad — this is such a yummy meal!

Bubalus Bubalis Mozzarella & Heirloom Tomatoes

signboard

Does it seem odd that I have to go to Costco to find local cheese? Well, I do. And I must admit, I didn’t join Costco because they sell the delicious Bubalus Bubalis mozzarella cheese. The truth is that I joined last February to buy a flat screen tv. I know, I know. You hypocrite, you say. But before you completely judge my membership to this megastore, hear my defense.

Actually, hear Bill Buford’s defense. (Or my interpretation of a Buford theory.) In Heat, Bill Buford spends a considerable amount of time in Panzano, Italy, a small village overlooking vineyards and olive groves in the “Conca d’Oro”, the “Golden Valley,” a large chianti-producing region. Towards the end of his stay, he reflects:

“My theory is one of smallness … As theories go, mine is pretty crude. Small food — good. Big food — bad. For me, the language we use to talk about modern food isn’t quite accurate or at least doesn’t account for how this Italian valley has taught me to think.

“The metaphor is usually one of speed: fast food has ruined our culture; slow food will save it … You see the metaphor’s appeal. But it obscures a fundamental problem, which has little to do with speed and everything to do with size. Fast food did not ruin our culture. The problem was already in place, systemic in fact, and began the moment food was treated like an inanimate object — like any other commodity — that could be manufactured in increasing numbers to satisfy a market.

“In effect, the two essential players in the food chain swapped roles. One moment the producer determined what was available and how it was made. The next moment it was the consumer. The Maestro blames the supermarkets, but the supermarkets are just a symptom.

“What happened in the food business has occurred in every aspect of modern life, and the change has produced many benefits: I like island holidays and flat-screen televisions and have no argument with global market economies, except in this respect — in what it has done to food.”

How does this passage help my case at all? Certainly, you say, Costco carries much of the “big food” Buford describes. 

But Costco also carries those very inanimate objects which Buford notes have produced many benefits, many benefits I enjoy on a daily basis. TV watching has never been more enjoyable since we introduced a Vizio to our livingroom. Work on the computer has never been more efficient since I replaced my laptop with a desktop. Countless frustrations vanished when I purchased my Canon Rebel XT. I am so thankful these gadgets have been manufactured at a scale that affords me and so many others the opportunity to have them. 

Is this so wrong? Why do I feel guilt when I shop at Costco even if I am purchasing zero food? I know why. It’s because I know that by supporting Costco’s sale of inanimate objects, I am supporting the store overall and supporting a type of food system that contrasts sharply with that I have been trying to support these past few years. It’s a quandary. 

That said, it’s a quandary that has become less troublesome since I discovered one item in the dairy aisle. Costco carries Bubalus Bubalis mozzarella, a local brand of mozzarella made from water buffalo. The buffalo actually graze in northern California, but the cheese, if I understand correctly, is produced in Gardena. I first tasted this mozzarella last summer at the Santa Monica farmers’ market and became instantly smitten. It is creamy and delicious, rivaling the imported Italian mozzarella di bufala. I haven’t been able to find it anywhere near me until I stumbled upon it at Costco.

coveresdsum09Summer wouldn’t be summer without tomato and mozzarella salads. Bubalus Bubalis mozzarella paired with Cherokee purple tomatoes is a recipe for success. I discovered Cherokee purple tomatoes last summer at the San Clemente farmers’ market and I have looked forward to eating them since last October, when they disappeared from the farmstands. In April, I had the chance to visit Valdivia Farm, the Carlsbad farm that grows these delectable heirloom tomatoes. If you’d like to hear about my trip, read this. Below, there are a few pictures from the farm in April just after the tomatoes were planted.

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

Bubalus Bubalis Mozzarella

cheese and tomatoes

A man selling produce at the Valdivia Farmstand in Carlsbad.
Valdivia Farmstand

The tomato field at Valdivia Farm in April just a few weeks after the tomatoes were planted.
Tomato field at Valdivia Farm

tomato field

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

Tofu, Edamame & Soju

tofuWaywaywaywaywaiiit. Stop. Seriously. I know what you’re doing. I can see you. I can’t. But I know what you’re doing. You’re turning your nose. The thought of tofu for dinner, you’re thinking, is unacceptable.

I was there once, too. But in the past few months, I have been experimenting with tofu, trying to truly grow to like it. So when I read Ruth Reichl’s description of this warm tofu with spicy dipping sauce — “a beautiful dish, which takes ten minutes, costs very little, and is so utterly delicious” —  in this month’s Gourmet, I had to try it. 

This is by far the easiest easiest easiest (my friends who hate to cook are you listening?) method of preparing tofu I have encountered. The recipe calls for simmering the tofu in water, making a sauce and pouring the sauce over the tofu. And it is delicious. Truly. I think you will be pleased. 

tofu

PS: Though this rectangular plate is quite pretty, I think bowls are a more appropriate serving dish. 

Making the sauce:
sauce prep

toasted sesame seeds

scallions

On the side? Way back in the day, I worked at a catering company in Philadelphia. At nearly every party I worked, ‘peking duck rolls’ served straight from a bamboo steamer were passed with a soy dipping sauce … everyone raved. Of course, I went to Chinatown immediately following the first party I worked to purchase one of these three-tiered bamboo steamers. I must admit, I have hardly used it since, but it is a great gadget to have on hand even so. It steamed my edamame tonight in under five minutes. If you have one, place it right into a wok filled with just enough water to reach below the first tier. Bring the water to a boil and then place edamame pods into one of the tiers. Cover and steam until done. Sprinkle with a nice sea salt according to taste.

edamame

steaming edamame

edamame with nice salt

What to drink. What to drink. My day started with soju and has ended with soju. Soju’s “neutral flavor,” according to Gourmet, makes it a great mixer and “a favored alcoholic beverage in Korea.” I can’t really tell you how it tastes, only that it tasted damn good in the bloody Mary I had this morning at The Ramos House Cafe and damn good in the beverage I am drinking now — a grapefruit soju cocktail. If you can’t find soju, any vodka will make a fine substitute. 

grapefruit soju cocktail

To Make This Feast:

Step One: Pepare Cocktails

Grapefruit Soju Cocktails
Adapted from Gourmet
Makes 10 drinks (according to Gourmet), 5 drinks (according to Ali)

1 tablespoon superfine sugar
1 quart (4 cups) fresh-squeezed (or not) grapefruit juice
1 cup soju (sometimes called sochu), sake or vodka, chilled
Club soda or seltzer water chilled

1. Stir the sugar and 1/8 teaspoon salt into the juice and stir to dissolve. Stir in soju and add sugar to taste.

2. Pour into ice-filled glasses and top with a splash of club soda.

Gourmet’s note: Grapefruit mixture without soju can be made four hours ahead and chilled. Add soju to mixture just before serving.

Step Two: Prepare Tofu

Warm Tofu with Spicy Garlic Sauce
Adapted from Gourmet
Serves 8 (as part of a Korean Meal according to Gourmet), 2 (as a main dish according to Ali — This recipe yields enough sauce for two, but I would double the amount of tofu if serving this as a main dish for 2.)

1 (14- to 18-oz) package firm tofu Note: The original recipe calls for soft (not silken) tofu. I have now made this recipe with both soft and firm tofu, and I prefer the firm tofu — the soft was very hard to eat with chopsticks.
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
¼ cup chopped scallion
2 teaspoons sesame seeds, toasted and crushed with side of a heavy knife (I minced the seeds with some garlic and scallions, which helped keep the seeds from flying off the cutting board.)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
1 teaspoon coarse Korean hot red-pepper flakes (crushed red pepper flakes)
1/2 teaspoon sugar

1. Rinse tofu, then cover with cold water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then keep warm, covered, over very low heat.

2. Meanwhile, mince and mash garlic to a paste with a pinch of salt. Stir together with remaining ingredients.

3. Just before serving, carefully lift tofu from saucepan with a large spatula and drain on paper towels. Gently pat dry, then transfer to a small plate. Spoon some sauce over tofu and serve warm. Serve remaining sauce on the side.

Notes: Sauce can be made 1 day ahead and chilled. Bring to room temperature before using. Tofu can be kept warm up to 4 hours.

Last Step: Steam Edamame

Edamame in pods
Nice sea salt

1. Steam pods until done, about five minutes. Sprinkle with nice salt. Serve. Yum.