David Lebovitz’ Chocolate Biscotti — Great Recipe

Chocolate Biscotti

Several months ago a dear friend casually mentioned in an email her disappointment with a batch of chocolate biscotti she had just baked. I have been obsessed with finding a good chocolate biscotti recipe ever since, testing recipes, fiddling with proportions, and generally just eating and eating and eating some more. I think I have started each morning for the past two months with a chocolate biscotti. None, however, was particularly satisfying until I discovered David Lebovitz’ recipe.

I held out on making this recipe for so long because I didn’t think a biscotti recipe without butter would be good. Boy was I wrong. These are divine. Perfectly sweet. Not too hard. Crumbly. Soft. Not too soft. Loaded with chocolate and studded with almonds. A perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee. I am convinced there is no better way to start the morning (and mid-morning and afternoon and early evening, etc.).

For those biscotti-making novices out there, there is nothing tricky about baking cookies twice.I basically followed Lebovitz’ instructions to a tee: baked the logs first for 25 minutes at 350ºF; let them rest for 15 minutes; sliced them up and baked them for 15 minutes more, which was a little bit less than recommended but a perfect length to achieve the texure I like. Yum yum yum.

I also can’t emphasize enough how easy baking becomes when you introduce a digital scale to your arsenal of kitchen tools. I tend to measure in ounces but Lebovitz’ recipe was in grams, which seem to be more precise. This recipe is a winner. Make these biscotti. They’re a real treat.

And if you’re not so much a chocolate fan, try these almond biscotti — it’s another great recipe.

Chocolate Biscotti

Source: Adapted from David Lebovitz
For notes regarding cocoa and other matters, check out his post. I do think using good cocoa makes a difference. I had good results with Ghirardelli.

2 cups (280g) flour
3/4 cups (75g) top-quality cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon table salt
3 large eggs*
1 cup (200g) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1 cup (125g) almonds, toasted and very coarsely-chopped
3/4 cups (120g) chocolate chips

Notes:

*Twice now I’ve had to whisk up another egg and add it to the batter at the end to help the batter bind together. So, if your batter doesn’t seem to be forming a mass, beat up an extra egg and mix it in. That should help. Next time I think I’ll just add 4 eggs.

** I chose not to glaze/eggwash my biscotti. I feel a glaze in unnecessary with chocolate biscotti. If you wish to glaze, however, refer to David Lebovitz’ post.

1. Preheat the oven to 350F (180C) degrees.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.

3. In a large bowl, beat together the 3 eggs, sugar, and vanilla & almond extracts. Gradually stir in the dry ingredients, then mix in the nuts and the chocolate chips until the dough holds together.

4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Divide the dough in half. Form each half into a log. Transfer the logs onto the baking sheet, evenly spaced apart.

5. Bake for 25 minutes, until the dough feels firm to the touch.

6. Remove pan from the oven and cool 15 minutes. On a cutting board, use a serrated (or not … I’ve used both types) knife to diagonally cut the cookies into 1/2-inches slices. Lay the cookies cut side down on baking sheets and return to the oven for 15 minutes*, turning the baking sheet midway during baking, until the cookies feel mostly firm.

Notes:

* Lebovitz bakes his for 20 to 30 minutes during the second baking. I like my biscotti not too crisp and have found good results with just 15 minutes of baking second time around. Also, really make sure your oven is at 350º or less — the chocolate will burn if your oven is hotter.

**Once baked, cool the cookies completely then store in an airtight container for up to two weeks. If you wish, the cookies can be half-dipped in melted chocolate, then cooled until the chocolate hardens.

A Super Summery Pasta

orecchiette with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and basil

I am obsessed with roasted red peppers at the moment. I have been preparing them by the half dozen and using them all week chopped up in salads or left whole in sandwiches or laid atop a bagel with cream cheese. They are so delicious.

There are no roasted red peppers in this pasta dish, however. But I did discover a revolutionary way to use all of those lovely juices generated by roasting peppers. More on that later.

As for this pasta dish, it’s another one I learned while working at that Philadelphia restaurant. As soon as the Branch Creek cherry tomatoes — the sweetest, most flavorful cherry tomatoes I had ever tasted — arrived each summer, this dish would appear as a first course on the menu. And it was a huge hit, a perfect start to a summer dinner.

It’s simple to prepare: Sauté cherry tomatoes with orecchiette, ciliegene mozzarella and basil pesto. Add some fresh basil just before plating along with some shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh cracked pepper. Yum yum yum. Toasted pine nuts, I think, would make a nice addition to this pasta as well.

So, I normally avoid buying jarred sauces, tapenades, pestos, etc. but I have an amazing Italian deli in my town that sells enormous jars of delectable pesto at a very reasonable price. It’s hard to pass up and makes for very easy preparations. So, if you have a good local source for pesto, by all means use it in this dish — everything else will take minutes to prepare.

Now, onto my revolutionary discovery regarding roasted red pepper juices. First of all, I cannot believe I have been discarding those juices all these years. I mean, I have always stored my peppers in their juices in a bowl in the fridge but once the last pepper has been consumed, those juices go down the drain. I had never before thought to drizzle them over pasta for added flavor or to reheat them with last night’s pasta, as I did yesterday with this very dish, which was extremely delicious.

Oh it pains me to think about! What a waste. Am I the last person on the planet to have discovered this? Have all of you been creatively and resourcefully using your roasted red pepper juices all these years? If so, pray tell how.

I am anxious to try the recipe here with roasted red peppers substituted for the tomatoes, goat cheese for the mozzarella, and red pepper juices for the pesto … ooooh, I think another super summery pasta dish is in the works.

Orecchiette with Cherry Tomatoes, Mozzarella & Basil Pesto

Serves 4 as a starter or 2 generously as an entrée

1/2 lb. orecchiette pasta
kosher salt
2 T. olive oil
1/2 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved (I used more like 9oz., and you could probably use even more)
2 T. basil pesto
1/2 lb. ciliegene (small balls) mozzarella*
fresh basil**
shaving of Parmigiano Reggiano (optional)
fresh cracked black pepper

* Goat cheese would be a nice substitute.
** If you have small tender leaves, leave them whole; otherwise, chiffonade the basil
*** Toasted pine nuts or walnuts would make a nice addition to this pasta as well.

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a pinch of kosher salt. Add pasta and cook till al dente, about 9 minutes. (Package instructions said 11 minutes but the pasta will continue cooking as its tossed with the other ingredients so it’s best to undercook it a little bit.) Drain pasta. Do not rinse.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook for 30 seconds. Add pasta and pesto. Cook 1 minute, stirring to coat pasta with the pesto. Add the mozzarella. Stir to incorporate. Add the fresh basil and remove from the heat.

3. Divide pasta among bowls and sprinkle each with some fresh shavings of Parmigiano. Crack the pepper overtop and serve.

Peach-Blueberry Cobbler

I had signed up to make a “super summery dessert” for a Fourth of July party. I contemplated trifle, pie and tres leches cake. And then I thought, “What could be more summery than a pan of bubbling peaches and blueberries stewing below a floating layer of golden-brown sugar-crusted buttermilk biscuits? ”

Peach-blueberry cobbler it would be.

And it was. With vanilla ice cream melting through each bite, smiles abounded.

Have you found yourself in the same boat yet this summer? Needing to make a dessert for a crowd? Look no further. This is it. Yum yum yum yum yum.

PS: If you can find rhubarb in your parts, try this recipe.

Peach and Blueberry Cobbler

Serves 10 – 12

2 lbs. peaches, yellow or white (nectarines would be great as well)
3 cups blueberries, washed and stemmed
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup sugar*
zest of one lime
pinch of kosher salt

2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup (1 stick) butter, cold
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk

2 teaspoons milk
2 teaspoons demera sugar

vanilla ice cream for serving

*I used 1/3 cup sugar and my peaches were on the very under-ripe side. So, depending on the sweetness of your fruit, adjust the amount of sugar accordingly. As an example, when I make this recipe using strawberries and rhubarb, I use 3/4 cup sugar because rhubarb is so tart.

1. Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Slice up your peaches — I got about 6 to 8 thick slices per peach. Place peaches in a bowl with blueberries, cornstarch, sugar, lime zest and salt, and toss to combine. Set aside.

2. In separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Cut the butter into the flour mixture in small pieces and stir with a fork to combine. Whisk buttermilk and vanilla together, then pour mixture into dry ingredients. Stir with a fork until mixture comes together — the dough will be very wet and sticky.

3. Transfer fruit to a 12 x 8½-inch (2 quart) baking dish. Break off portions of the dough (about 8-10) and arrange over the fruit. Brush the dough with the milk and sprinkle the sugar over both the fruit and dough portions of the dish.

4. Place in the oven for 50-55 minutes, until topping is golden brown and juices are bubbling. Let cool on rack 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Homemade Focaccia + Roasted Red Pepper & Arugula Sandwiches

Sandwiches

Next time you are invited to a potluck picnic, volunteer to make sandwiches. And then make these. You will be loved forever. I promise.

Roasted red peppers, arugula and an herbed goat cheese* is a particularly nice combination at the moment but later in the summer, when the tomatoes are peaking, a classic Caprese salad on this homemade focaccia will be a huge hit.

I have been making this focaccia recipe since it was printed in Fine Cooking magazine over six years ago now. It’s credited to Peter Reinhart and, like all of his recipes, is very precise. But unlike many of his recipes, which seem to begin days in advance of baking time, this one is just an overnighter and only takes minutes to prepare. It’s particularly easy if you have a stand mixer but Reinhart provides detailed by-hand mixing instructions as well. Make it. It’s a winner for sure.

I learned something, too, about roasting peppers while preparing for this picnic: Patience pays. I roasted these peppers as I usually do — on a parchment-lined sheetpan under the broiler for about 15 to 20 minutes or until evenly blackened — and steamed them as I usually do — in an aluminum bowl covered with plastic wrap. But instead of rushing the peeling, charring my little fingers in the process, I waited to peel till the following morning. It was a breeze. From here on out, I will roast, steam and peel 24 hrs. in advance … rrrrrigghhht.

* Note: I whipped a log of honey-goat cheese from Trader Joe’s with fresh basil and about 1/4 cup of crème fraîche (for texture), which made a delicious spread. Any herb or combination of herbs would be nice but I definitely recommend whipping the goat cheese with a little bit of milk or yogurt or something of the sort to make spreading easier.

Homemade Focaccia
Source: Fine Cooking March 2004
Yield = one sheet pan

Notes: If you don’t have a mixer, follow the instructions on the Fine Cooking website for mixing by hand.

1 lb. 9 oz. (5-1/2 cups) unbleached bread flour
2-1/2 cups cold water (about 55°F)
2 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. granulated sugar (1 oz.)
2 tsp. table salt or 3-1/2 tsp. kosher salt (1/2 oz.)
1 packet (1/4 oz.) instant yeast (also called quick-rise, rapid-rise, or fast-rising yeast)
10 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt or kosher salt for sprinkling

Mix the dough:

Coat a bowl large enough to hold the dough when it doubles in size with 1 Tbs. of the olive oil. Transfer the dough to the bowl and rotate the dough to coat it with the oil.

Hold the bowl steady with one hand. Wet the other hand in water, grasp the dough and stretch it to nearly twice its size.

Lay the stretched section back over the dough. Rotate the bowl a quarter turn and repeat this stretch-and-fold technique. Do this two more times so that you have rotated the bowl a full 360 degrees and stretched and folded the dough four times. Drizzle 1 Tbs. of the olive oil over the dough and flip it over. Wrap the bowl well with plastic and refrigerate it overnight, or for at least 8 to 10 hours.

Shape the focaccia:

Remove the bowl of dough from the refrigerator and start shaping the focaccia 3 hours before you intend to bake it (2 hours on a warm day). The dough will have nearly doubled in size. Cover a 13×18-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat and coat the surface with 2 Tbs. of the olive oil.

Gently slide a rubber spatula or a dough scraper under the dough and guide it out of the bowl onto the center of the pan. The dough will sink beneath its own weight, expelling some gas but retaining enough to keep an airy gluten network that will grow into nice holes.

Drizzle 2 Tbs. of the olive oil on top of the dough. (Don’t worry if some rolls off onto the pan; it will all be absorbed eventually.)

Dimple the entire dough surface, working from the center to the edges, pressing your fingertips straight down to create hollows in the dough while gently pushing the dough down and out toward the edges of the pan. At first you might only be able to spread the dough to cover about one-half to three-quarters of the pan. Don’t force the dough when it begins to resist you. Set it aside to rest for 20 minutes. The oil will prevent a crust from forming.

After letting the dough rest, drizzle another 2 Tbs. olive oil over the dough’s surface and dimple again. This time, you will be able to push the dough to fill or almost fill the entire pan. It should be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. If it doesn’t stay in the corners, don’t worry; the dough will fill the corners as it rises.

Cover the dough loosely with oiled plastic wrap, put the pan on a rack to let air circulate around it, and let the dough rise at room temperature until it’s about 1-1/2 times its original size and swells to the rim of the pan. This will take 2 to 3 hours, depending on the temperature of the room. Thirty minutes before baking, heat your oven to 475°F.

Bake the focaccia:

Just before baking, gently remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle a few pinches of sea salt or kosher salt over the dough. Put the pan in the middle of the hot oven and reduce the heat to 450°F. After 15 minutes, rotate the pan to ensure even baking.

Check the dough after another 7 minutes. If it’s done, it will be golden brown on top and, if you lift a corner of the dough, the underside will be golden as well. If not, return the pan to the oven for another 1 to 2 minutes and check again.

Set a cooling rack over a sheet of aluminum foil or parchment (to catch drippings). Use a metal spatula to release the dough from the sides of the pan. Slide the spatula under one end of the focaccia and jiggle it out of the pan onto the rack. If any oil remains in the pan, pour it evenly over the focaccia’s surface. Carefully remove the parchment or silicone liner from beneath the focaccia. Let cool for 20 minutes before cutting and serving.

Roasted Red Peppers
Yield= However many you want
(Estimate about 1 pepper for every 1 to 2 people)

red bell peppers

1. Preheat the broiler. Line a sheetpan with parchment paper for easy cleaning. Alternatively, grease the sheetpan with a little bit of olive oil.

2. Cut peppers in half lengthwise. Remove stem and seeds. Place peppers cut side down on sheet pan. Broil for about 15 to 20 minutes or until evenly charred.

3. Place peppers in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Steam until completely cool — overnight is ideal. Use peppers for salads, sandwiches, pasta salads, etc.

Do you love roasted red peppers? Here are some other ideas for using them up.

Herbed Goat Cheese

There are many ways to make a yummy herbed goat cheese. This is what I did: I whipped a log of honey-goat cheese (delicious on its own) from Trader Joe’s with fresh basil and about 1/4 cup of crème fraîche (for texture), which made a delectable spread. Any herb or combination of herbs would be nice but I definitely recommend whipping the goat cheese with a little bit of milk or yogurt or something of the sort to make spreading easier.

Fingerling Potatoes with Rosemary and Thyme, Crispy or Not

potatoes in pot

I learned how to cook potatoes by the caseload. By the caseload of salt, too. Seriously. I was working in a restaurant in Philadelphia and gasped the first time I saw the chef unload a box — literally one 3-lb. box — of kosher salt into a pot, albeit a very large pot, filled with fingerling potatoes, water, many cloves of garlic and several bunches of rosemary and thyme.

Bring the water to a boil, he instructed, then turn off the heat. The potatoes, he ensured, would finish cooking as they cooled.

He was right. The potatoes were cooked perfectly, not the slightest bit overdone. And moreover, they were seasoned perfectly, too, not a bit too salty and subtly infused with the flavors of rosemary, thyme and garlic.

These days, I eat these potatoes straight out of the pot with not a bit of extra seasoning. They are excellent, too, sliced and tossed into salads.

But when I’m not feeling so lazy, I go the extra mile and crisp them up, as I learned to do at the restaurant, with a bit more rosemary and thyme and a pinch more salt. And then I splash Sriracha all over them. It’s such a treat. I think you’ll like them, too.

Fingerling Potatoes, Crispy or Not

Serves 2-4

1 1/2 lbs. fingerling potatoes
1/4 cup + 2 T. kosher salt
several sprigs of rosemary and thyme
2 cloves garlic, smashed

olive oil
kosher salt
a few more sprigs rosemary and thyme, leaves removed and minced

1. Place fingerlings in a pot. Cover with approximately one inch of water. Add the salt, herbs and garlic. Bring the pot of water to a boil, then turn off the heat. Let the potatoes cool completely in their liquid before proceeding.

2. Once cool, you can eat the potatoes as they are or you can brown them. These potatoes are wonderful to have on hand — they are truly delicious cooked as they are, sliced and tossed into salads or just eaten straight out of the refrigerator.

3. If you want to crisp them up a bit, slice the potatoes in half on a bias (or leave them whole if they are really small). Then, heat a pan (preferably cast iron or carbon steel or stainless steel) over high heat. Add a thin layer of olive oil and swirl the pan to coat the bottom — the pan and oil should be very hot before adding the potatoes. Add the potatoes, shake the pan once and then let them be. Do not disturb them for a minute or two. Check one before trying to shake the pan or stir them with a spoon — you want that edge to get crispy and it won’t get crispy if you try to move them too quickly.

4. Once the fingerlings are browning nicely, shake the pan, toss in the herbs and give them a pinch more of kosher salt. Serve immediately. I like to eat mine with Sriracha. Yum!

Overnight French Toast

Overnight French Toast, Out of the Oven

Overnight French Toast

I’m a real sucker for any sort of breakfast carb, especially when I’m out to eat. Challah French toast. Lemon-ricotta pancakes. Blueberry-cornmeal hotcakes. You name it. If it’s floured, fried and dripping in syrup, it has my name all over it.

Like the mussels, these are dishes I rarely make at home. Laboring over a fickle griddle is one deterrent for me. Timing is another. It’s nearly impossible to get enough pancakes and French toast and waffles out at the same time to serve everyone at once.

And you know what? I’m sort of tired of reading this line in recipes: “Place finished pancakes on a plate in a 200ºF oven to keep warm while you finish cooking.” We all know that after 20 minutes in a 200ºF oven, warm soggy disks are what remain. These foods are best eaten hot off the griddle. It’s a quandary for sure.

The solution? Well, I don’t have one for pancakes. But I do for French toast: Bake it. And start it the night before. This is the easiest French toast you will ever make, and I believe it’s one of the best, too. It’s crisp on the exterior and moist but by no means soggy on the interior. It emerges from the oven piping hot yielding enough, at the very least, for four eaters.

This recipe hails from the November 2000 issue of Gourmet — oh Gourmet how I miss you — and is a nice one to have in your file. Father’s Day is right around the corner … this might be a nice treat for everyone involved.

Just out of the oven, baked French toast:
Overnight French Toast, Out of the Oven

Overnight Baked French Toast

Serves 4 to 6

1 (13- to 14-inch-long) loaf of soft-crust bakery-style Italian bread*
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1 2/3 cups whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla
3 tablespoons sugar
*Notes: My mom uses “Toasting White” (Pepperidge Farm, I believe). My aunt uses a dense bakery-style loaf of Italian bread, which is what I’ve used here — density is key. I like both breads with this preparation, however.

Accompaniments: maple syrup, berries and powdered sugar if desired

1. Cut about six to eight — enough to fit your pan — one-inch-thick diagonal slices of bread.

2. Generously butter one side of each slice and arrange slices, buttered sides up, in one layer in a buttered 13- by 9- by 2-inch glass baking dish, squeezing them slightly to fit if necessary.

3. Whisk together eggs, milk, vanilla and 1/4 teaspoon salt until combined well, then pour evenly over bread. Chill, covered, until bread has absorbed all of custard, at least one hour and up to one day, depending on bread.

4. Preheat oven to 425°F. Bring mixture to room temperature and sprinkle bread with sugar.

5. Bake, uncovered, in middle of oven until bread is puffed and top is golden, 20 to 25 minutes, or longer — make sure it’s nice and golden on top or it will be soggy in the middle. Serve immediately with fruit and syrup and powdered sugar if desired.

After a night in the fridge, the bread absorbs all of the liquid:
French Toast, unbaked

Moules Marinière, So Easy A …

Moules à la Marinière

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

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

Salt Roasted Beets with Goat Cheese & Toasted Walnuts

Uncooked Beets

I’m not sure why I’m so excited about this salad. There is nothing novel about the combination. Beets, goat cheese, walnuts. They’ve been married to death. Like tomatoes and basil and mozzarella. Like prosciutto and figs and blue cheese. Like smoked salmon and cucumber and crème fraîche.

But, have you ever salt roasted beets? Don’t freak out. The beets don’t taste overly salty. In fact, they don’t taste salty at all. They taste delicious. And sweet. And perfectly firm.

I was inspired to blog about this method after reading an article in the March issue of Saveur — all about where to eat in Los Angeles — which offered a recipe for Wolfgang Puck’s beet and goat cheese napoleons, an appetizer served at Spago. A short article in the back of the issue addresses how to cook beets so that their color doesn’t run. To preserve color and nutrients, Saveur recommends placing beets (5 to 6) in a 9×13-inch baking dish, pouring in an inch of water, covering the dish tightly with foil, and roasting until a knife easily slides into the beets, about 1 1/2 hours. I used to cook beets just as prescribed.

That was until I learned the method of the chef (former chef) from the cafe where I used to work. He salt roasted his beets with rosemary and thyme, and his beet salad, served with a goat cheese-topped crostini, Blue Heron Farm greens and a lemon emulsion, was one of his signature dishes. When I tried his cooking method at home, I discovered something remarkable: not an ounce of liquid (well maybe a teensy tiny bit) leeches from the beets. If preserving color and nutrients is the goal, then salt roasting is the way to cook beets.

Beets’ affinity for orange makes the dressing for this salad, adapted from Saveur’s, particularly nice: reduced orange juice, orange zest, shallots, rice vinegar, chives and olive oil. I like to spoon this dressing over the salad rather than toss it with the ingredients — beets turn a tossed salad into one big red mess.

Think you don’t like beets? Try salt roasting them. As a final endorsement I’d like to share that my husband never liked beets until he tasted them cooked this way. The first time I salt roasted beets and served them to him, he asked me what was different and why he liked them. Had I not been so impressed by his discerning palette, I might have been offended — I never knew he didn’t like beets. And it turns out he didn’t. I just didn’t know how to cook them. 

Salt Roasted Beets with Goat Cheese & Walnuts

Beets

Dressing Ingredients

Salt Roasted Beet Salad

Serves: However Many You’d Like

Roasted Beets:
beets, washed, greens removed
kosher salt
a few sprigs thyme and rosemary, optional*

Dressing:
3/4 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice (store bought works fine, too)
1 T. rice vinegar or balsamic (I used rice vinegar)
zest of an orange
1 small shallot, minced
chives, minced
kosher salt
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

goat cheese
walnuts, toasted**
greens, optional***

* Not sure if these herbs impart any flavor, but if you have them on hand, use them
** I toast nuts in a dry skillet until fragrant and slightly darker in color
*** This salad is delicious with or without the addition of greens

Roast the beets. Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Pour kosher salt into a shallow roasting vessel to make a thin layer. (See photo to help estimate how much.) Place beets on salt bed. If using herbs, nestle a few sprigs among the beets. Cover pan tightly with foil and place in oven for about one hour, depending on how many and how big your beets are. Note: To test for doneness, remove foil and slip a pairing knife into one of the beets. If the knife meets little resistance, they are done. When beets are done, remove foil covering and let them cool. When cool enough to handle, rub off the skins and discard. Cut beets into nice chunks.

Meanwhile, make the dressing. Place the orange juice in a small saucepan over medium heat and reduce to 1/3 cup. Let cool. Add vinegar, zest, shallots, chives and a pinch of salt. Let sit for 15 minutes. Slowly whisk in the olive oil.

To assemble salad, arrange greens on a platter. Top with goat cheese, walnuts and cut beets. Season with a pinch of salt and freshly cracked pepper. Spoon dressing over salad. As you plate the salad, the ingredients will all toss nicely together. Note: This method of serving is merely for looks — beets are so messy that if you toss everything together, it becomes one big red mess. If you don’t care about looks, go ahead, toss everything together. If you try spooning the dressing over the salad, however, and tossing lightly as you serve it, I think you’ll find it both tastes and looks wonderful.

The Easiest (Best?) Ribs You Will Ever Make + Delicious Buttermilk Cornbread

Easiest (Best?) Ribs You Will Ever Make

Baby Back Ribs

The best ribs you’ve ever made? Let me qualify that. These are the only ones I know how to make, which make them the best I’ve ever made. That said, this recipe takes five minutes to prepare. Literally. Five minutes. But what emerges from the oven  — a juice-filled package of falling-off-the-bone baby back ribs, perfectly crisped on the exterior  — tastes like a day’s worth of work toiling over a coal-filled bbq pit. 

Sweet. Smokey. Salty. Delicious. If these aren’t the best ribs you’ve ever prepared, they’re damn good ribs at the very least. 

Where did I discover such an easy and delicious recipe? Where else. Liza, of course. My mother made these ribs for my meat-deprived husband and me when she was visiting last month. I’ve since made them several times for friends and family. If you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing recipe, this is it. Serve it with buttermilk cornbread (my favorite recipe is enclosed below) and a simple salad, and you have a successful dinner party in the making.

Now, some of you may be wondering where I found local, humanely raised pork. Well, I didn’t, because where I live, I haven’t been able to find a source fitting such criteria, a reality that has stopped me from buying pork for nearly two years. Oh Liza! With your baby back ribs! Your tasty tasty baby back ribs. I regret to admit I’ve compromised my morals.

Alas. For you locals, I have two alternatives: the Whole Foods in Laguna Beach sells organic pork from Canada donning a “responsibly farm raised” label, whatever that means. And Trader Joe’s sells pork from the Midwest from purveyors that “meet their standards,” according to a woman I spoke to on the Trader Joe’s product information line: 626.599.3817. Again, it’s hard to know how these pigs really live until you see the location yourself, but this woman assured me that Trader Joe’s has high standards, that their crew does checks regularly, and that the pigs from their purveyors do not live packed together in pens. Again, these sources are not the ideal but short of forgetting this recipe exists, the best alternative for the meantime. 

Baby Back Ribs

Baby Back Ribs

4 spices

Preparing the Ribs

The Easiest Ribs You’ll Ever Make

Serves 2-3
1 rack of baby back ribs
kosher salt
freshly cracked black pepper
smoked paprika (if you can find it) or parika
1 cup brown sugar
Heavy duty foil, if you have it

1. Preheat the oven to 275ºF.

2. Rinse off the ribs and pat dry. Liberally coat the ribs with the kosher salt, pepper and the paprika. Pack on the cup of brown sugar.

3. Lay out two sheets of foil slightly overlapping. Place ribs on top and close foil on all sides. Repeat two more times so that the ribs are covered in three good layers of foil. Place ribs on a sheet tray and place in the oven for 2½ hours. Note: When placing the ribs on the tray, try to place them meaty side down. It’s not critical but it makes for a crisper exterior.

4. Remove tray from the oven. Let sit for one hour. Do not open the pouch during this hour.

5. When ready to serve, reheat the ribs in the oven for about 15 minutes at 350ºF (this is assuming the ribs have not been refrigerated) or open the pouch, baste the ribs with the juices and place them under the broiler for five minutes.

Serve immediately with cornbread and a simple salad for a yummy yummy meal.

Buttermilk Cornbread

Super Moist Buttermilk Cornbread

Serves 8 to 10

1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup cornmeal
3 T. brown sugar
2 T. Sugar
1½ T. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar or Gruyère (or any cheese you like)
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugars, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the cheese and toss to coat.

2. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Whisk together the eggs and the buttermilk. Whisk in the melted butter. Pour wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until just combined.

3. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Pour into a springform pan and swirl the pan to coat. Add the batter to the pan and place in the oven. Bake for about 55 minutes, until golden on top. (Check after 50 minutes). Place on cooling rack. Let cool for 15 minutes before cutting.

cornbread ingredients