Buttermilk Panna Cotta: Simplest Dessert Ever

PannaCotta

This dessert takes five minutes to make. Ten minutes tops. And it’s a great way to use up leftover buttermilk.

For example, I opened the fridge a few days ago and spotted a carton of buttermilk dated August 13. It smelt a little funky and I noticed a few lumps, but doesn’t buttermilk always kind of look/smell this way? I gave the carton a good shake, poured the buttermilk into a clear, glass measuring cup to inspect for anything looking particularly threatening and proceeded with the recipe. Success. I have now eaten panna cotta three nights in a row and have yet to feel a tinge of sickness.

Even if you aren’t trying to use up a half-empy carton of buttermilk, this is a great recipe to have on hand for several reasons:

1. It can and should be made the night before serving — perfect for entertaining.
2. It is made in individual servings — perfect for entertaining.
3. It is light and summery.
4. It literally takes no time to whip up.
5. It is delicious.

Also, you don’t need fancy ramekins or custard cups. I have them, (and love them, obviously), but for the sake of demonstration, I poured this batch into various-sized glass cups including an old-fashioned mason jar. It looked precious. The panna cotta doesn’t even really need to be inverted onto a plate, and if you chose to use glasses, in fact, I wouldn’t recommend inverting. Just eat it right out of the glass. Yum.

Note: If you do have a set of ramekins, invert the panna cotta onto plates and serve with fresh fruit or a raspberry coulis, as my grandmother does.

What is panna cotta? Panna cotta, meaning “cooked cream,” is an Italian dessert made by simmering milk or cream and sugar together. It is thickened with gelatin and must chill for a few hours to set. According to Wikipedia, panna cotta originates from the Piedmont region of Italy.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta

Update 05-01-2012: I no longer make this recipe. I find it to be way too sweet. This is my go-to panna cotta recipe. It’s a Claudia Fleming recipe and it’s just about perfect.

If you have 1½ cups buttermilk on hand:
1½ tsp. unflavored gelatin
½ cup milk, not skim, but 1% and up
½ cup sugar
1½ cups buttermilk
¼ tsp. vanilla extract

If you have 1 cup buttermilk on hand:
1 tsp. gelatin
6 T. milk
6 T. sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1/8 tsp. vanilla

1. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over ¼ cup (or 3 tablespoons if using 1 cup of buttermilk) of water. Let stand until softened, about 5 minutes.

2. In a saucepan, heat milk and sugar over medium heat until sugar dissolves and mixture is hot but not boiling, 3-5 minutes.
Remove from heat, stir in gelatin mixture, then buttermilk, and vanilla. Pour into 4 or 6-oz ramekins* and chill until set, 3 hours.

3. To serve, run a knife around edge of ramekin, place a plate on top, flip over and gently shake to turn out onto plate.
Garnish with some fresh berries.

*Note: Pour into any vessel you have. If using tall, narrow glasses, do not worry about inverting. Serve right in the glass. Keeps well in the fridge for at least a week.

23. August 2008 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Desserts, Olallie Cafe recipes | 17 comments

Grilled Corn and Cherry Tomato Salsa

Cornsalsa

I haven’t quite nailed down this whole gardening thing yet. My cherry tomato plant grew so tall that most of its branches, weighed down by the bundles of fruit at the ends, ended up snapping in two. In an effort to alleviate some of the stress on the rest of the plant, I pruned the broken branches and lay them over the railing outside my apartment.

Amazingly, in just a few days, the little green teardrops turned bright red. And now, I have more cherry tomatoes on my hands than I know what to do with. This salsa has helped deplete the supply somewhat, but I’m going to have to get a little more creative if I want to enjoy these sweet treats before they shrivel on the vine and fall to their death in our carport.

I served this tonight over a piece of pan-seared cod. Yum. And, I ended up eating the salsa more as a side dish than a condiment. This salsa almost could be served as a salad itself. Or, tossed with some bulgur or quinoa or any grain really, it could be made into a meal.

I have about a cup of it left which I am going to stir into some scrambled eggs manana. I cannot wait.


Grilled Corn and Cherry Tomato Salsa
Yields enough for two people. Serve with pan-seared fish or chicken

2 ears corn, shucked
2 cups cherry tomatoes
½ red onion
fresh basil
1-2 hot peppers, such as Thai bird chilies, jalapenos or serranos
kosher salt
olive oil
½ a lemon or lime

1. Preheat the grill to high. When ready, grill the corn very briefly on each side, just enough to leave a few kernels charred. Remove corn from grill and let cool briefly. Cut kernels from cob and place in a mixing bowl. (Note: The corn will taste very crunchy still. The grilling is just to add a nice, smoky flavor.)

2. Meanwhile halve the cherry tomatoes through the stem and place in the mixing bowl. Peel and finely dice the onion to yield a scant half-cup. Add to the bowl. Tear basil leaves into the bowl. Finely dice the chilies, seeds and all, and add to the bowl. (Obviously, add according to what heat-scale you prefer.)

3.Season the mixture with a pinch of kosher salt. Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive (maybe more, maybe less) over the mixture. Juice the half lemon or lime over the mixture. Toss gently with a large spoon. Taste, adjust seasoning as necessary, and leave at room temperature until ready to serve.

This salsa is particularly delicious served over a pan-seared filet of fish such as cod, halibut, trout, striped bass, etc.


Broken branches of cherry tomatoes ripening in the sun on my railing.

21. August 2008 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Fish, Salsa | 11 comments

Trying To Understand The Food Crisis and Artisan Bread In Five Minutes A Day: Corn Bread

abi5

In a May 19th New Yorker article, Bee Wilson wrote: “As of 2006, there were 800 million people on the planet who were hungry, but they were outnumbered by the billion who were overweight. Our current food predicament resembles a scenario largely created by overproduction rather than underproduction. Our ability to produce vastly too many calories for our basic needs has skewed the concept of demand and generated a wildly dysfunctional market.”

This confused me. How could so many people in the world — 100 million people currently are at risk of joining the one billion people on the planet living on $1 a day — be hungry if there is no overall shortage of food? The answer, I learned, is complicated.

China, India, Europe and the United States are all to blame. Trade officials in these nations (and other wealthy nations), of course, design policies that will protect their farmers. What’s so bad about that? Well, when governments intervene in markets by imposing import tariffs and subsidies, for example, markets do not operate as they should and false equilibriums are reached. This, in turn, leads to market failures — such as food shortages — and the consequences can be dire: misery, malnutrition, starvation.

I’ve been trying to understand this food crisis for the past few months now, and I have summarized below what I have learned. Links to all of the articles I have read regarding this matter can be found at the end of the post (before the recipe.)

The issues:

• Usually food crises are localized, but for the first time in 30 years, food protests are erupting in many places at once: 33 countries (including Haiti, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Egypt, the Philippines, El Salvador and Pakistan) are at risk of social upheaval because of the high food prices.

• Human suffering is vast. Food inflation could push 100 million people into poverty, wiping out all the gains the poorest billion have made during almost a decade of economic growth.

• The era of cheap food is over.

What is causing the high food prices?

1. The growing middle-class in China and India: A half-billion consumers in these countries are increasingly emulating rich Western diets. (They are eating more meat.)

2. High oil costs have sent diesel fuel, fertilizers and farm chemical prices sky-high. Industrial agriculture has become so dependent on fossil fuel — for fertilizer, for pesticide, for processing and transportation. Today it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy.

3. Western biofuel programs converting cereals into fuel. This year, one-fifth of the American corn crop will be devoted to Ethanol. High corn prices have led farmers to plant more corn and less soy and wheat, leading to the surge in the price for all grains.

4. Arable acreage is continually being cut back due to environmental regulations, water scarcities and urban development.

5. Government interference in markets. In a perfect world: the response to higher prices is higher output; with farming, however, this isn’t the case. For one, it always takes a season to grow more food (unlike a toy factory, which can respond immediately). And second, by imposing export quotas, price controls, consumer subsidies, export restrictions and lower tariffs, governments muffle signals to farmers and further delay their reaction to price signals. In a free market, imbalances get smoothed out naturally.

What is the solution?

First: Get food and help to the famine-ravaged places. In the short-term, humanitarian aid, social protection programs and and open trade policies will alleviate the suffering. To achieve this, the World Food Program (the world’s largest distributor of food aid) needs an extra $700 million. Though the importation of American and European surplus harvests could damage domestic markets in poor nations, given the widespread food shortages, this is the short-term solution.

Second: Open up trade. Governments need to liberalize markets not intervene. Victor Davis Hanson writes: “The best thing  that the United States could now do is to stop interfering with its own farmers, let markets and need determine what they grow and how they farm — and then by such a principled American example, persuade the rest of the world to do the same.”

Long-term solutions:

• Reduce modern agriculture’s dependence on oil. Michael Pollan writes that “agriculture is the original solar technology, and sustainable farmers have shown us how we might put our food system back on a foundation of sunlight. For example, when you take cattle off their typical feedlot diet of grain and allow them to eat grass, those hamburgers put less pressure on the prices of both oil and grain.”

• Pollan continues: “Most of the world’s grain goes to feed animals, not people, and meat is a very inefficient use for that grain — it takes 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. There would be plenty of grain for everyone if we actually ate it as food and didn’t use it to make meat. Reducing world meat consumption — or feeding our food animals differently — would leave more grain for the world’s hungry.

The Economist asserts that the way to feed the world is not to bring more land under cultivation, but to increase yields, and science, thus, is crucial. (The Economist: The quickest way to increase your crop is to plant more, but in the short run, there is only a limited amount of fallow land. Food increases thus need to come from higher yields.)

Sources: “The Silent Tsunami” and “The New Face of Hunger,” both printed in the April 19th Economist, “Harvesting Money In a Hungry World” by Victor Davis Hanson printed in the August 1st New York Times; “How To Feed The World” by Michael Pollan printed in the May 19th Newsweek, and “The Last Bite: Is the World’s Food System Collapsing?” by Bee Wilson printed in the May 19th New Yorker.

Oh and P.S.: This bread, like all of the other loaves produced from recipes printed in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day, is delicious. As the pictures show, this isn’t the typical, sweet, cake-like creation most often associated with the word “cornbread.”


Broa (Portuguese Corn Bread)
From Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François

Yield = four 1-lb. loaves

3 cups lukewarm water
1½ T. granulated yeasts (1½ packets)
1½ T. kosher or other coarse salt
1½ cups stone-ground or standard cornmeal
5 cups (22.5 oz.) unsifted, unbleached, all-purpose white flour, measured with the scoop-and-sweep method

Mixing and Storing the Dough

1. Mix the yeast and salt with the water in a five-quart bowl, or preferably, in a resealable, lidded (not airtight) plastic food container or food-grade bucket. Don’t worry about getting it all to dissolve. (I added the yeast, then the flour and then the salt on top of the flour to avoid killing any of the yeast, but apparently this is unnecessary.)

2. Mix in the cornmeal and flour. Mix with a wooden spoon. If necessary, reach into your mixing vessel with very wet hands and press the mixture together. Don’t knead! It isn’t necessary.

3. Allow to rise: Cover with a lid (not airtight) and allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse (or at least flattens on the top), approximately two hours. You can use a portion of the dough any time after this period, but fully refrigerated dough is less sticky and is easier to work with. So, the first time you try this method, it’s best to refrigerate the dough overnight before shaping a loaf.

On Baking Day:

4. Sprinkle the surface of your refrigerated dough with flour. Pull up and cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-size) piece, using a serrated knife. Hold the mass of dough in your hands and add a little more flour as needed so it won’t stick to your hands. Gently stretch the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. The correctly shaped final product will be smooth and cohesive. The entire process should take no more than 30 to 60 seconds.

5. Place the shaped ball on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel. (If you aren’t planning on baking the bread on a pizza stone, just let the dough rest on a cornmeal covered cutting board. Allow the loaf (uncovered) to rest on the peel for about 40 minutes.

6. Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450ºF, with a baking stone placed on the lowest rack. (If you don’t have a stone, don’t worry.) Place an empty broiler tray for holding water on any other shelf that won’t interfere with the rising bread. (This helps to make the crust crispy, but you’re bread will still be delicious if you omit this step.)

7. Dust the top of the loaf liberally with flour, which will allow the slashing knife to pass without sticking. Make several ¼-inch-deep slashes across the bread. (Again, an uncritical step.)

8. With a quick forward jerking motion of the wrist, slide the loaf off the pizza peel and onto the preheated stone. (Alternatively, butter a Pyrex dish or baking pan and place the bread in the pan.) Quickly but carefully pour about one cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray and close the oven door to trap the steam. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned and firm to the touch. Allow to cool completely, preferably on a wire rack.

17. August 2008 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Baking, Bread, Eating Locally | 2 comments

How to Roast Peppers

RoastedPeppers

On Wednesday, I found the dollar bin at the Santa Monica farmers’ market. Well, a dollar bin of sorts. One of the stands was selling bell peppers, a mix of yellow and red, for $1 a pound. I picked up eight, slightly misshapen, on-the-verge-of-spoiling peppers for $2. That’s crazy. I basically had hit the jackpot. I took them home, roasted them, and now I have a stash in my fridge to be used as I wish. For dinner tonight, I made scrambled eggs and ate them with warm bread topped with some slivers of roasted red peppers. Yum.

So it seems, even with crazy-high food prices — the Washington Post recently reported that since March 2007, the price of eggs has jumped 35 percent; a gallon of milk, 23 percent; a loaf of white bread, 16 percent; and a pound of ground chuck, 8 percent — deals can be found. And “green,” delicious deals at that.

I know, I know. It’s not always so easy. But seriously, a simple way to buffer the sting of these high food prices is to eat more vegetables. These peppers, which taste so sweet when roasted, can be used in so many ways. Meat will not be missed. At least for a few days.

Here are some other tasty locations to place your roasted peppers:
• Sandwiches with cheddar cheese, mustard and red onion.
• Salads.
• Paninis filled with sautéed Swiss chard and Gruyère.
• Pasta or pasta salad.
• On pizza.
• In omelets.
• As a dip when coarsely puréed with feta and parsley.
• Quiche.
• A savory, summer tart.


Roasted Red Peppers
Yield = As many as you like. Estimate about half a pepper per person.

bell peppers, a mix of red, yellow, orange and green is pretty, but red are the sweetest and the best
parchment paper, makes for easy cleaning, but a thin coating of olive oil does the trick, too
olive oil
kosher salt or fleur de sel
fresh cracked pepper
basil
or parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 450ºF*. Line a rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper (for easy clean up — make sure it extends over the edges).

2. Meanwhile, cut peppers in half lengthwise. Remove seeds and white veins. Place peppers cut-side down on parchment paper. (Alternatively, rub a small amount of olive oil on the sheet tray.) Place pan in the oven for about 30 to 40 minutes, until the skin is blistery and charred. Don’t be impatient here: If the skin isn’t blistery enough, the peppers will be difficult to peel.

3. Place the peppers in a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit for at least 20 minutes and up to 4 or 5 hours (or longer.) When cool enough to handle, remove the skin and discard.

4. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use. You can also store the peppers with the skins still on — I do this when I can’t get around to peeling them right away.

*Note: You could also broil the peppers. If you prefer broiling, which takes less time, do not line your baking sheet with parchment — it will burn. The peppers take about 20 minutes under the broiler.

Note: Bring to room temperature before serving — the cold masks their flavor. For a simple appetizer, slice the peppers into slivers. place on a platter. Taste. Sometimes the peppers are so sweet that they don’t need anything. If they need a little seasoning, however, drizzle lightly with olive oil, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and top with fresh herbs. Serve with warm bread.

14. August 2008 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Appetizers, Side dishes, Vegetarian | 4 comments

Wedding Cake, Desconstructed

cake

Somebody please come save me from myself. I am home alone with this now 2/3-eaten cake. Every morning I tell myself I’m going to throw it into the compost bin*, but somehow I talk myself out of it and find a reason to cut myself another “sliver.” This isn’t even the kind of dessert I really adore. I much prefer a dense almond torte or chocolate souffle cake or fruit galette. Alas, it’s still too good to trash or turn into soil for my garden. (*Yes, I purchased the Back Porch ComposTumbler!)

Why do I have this cake all to myself? Well, on Sunday, Ben and I celebrated with cake and champagne the recent marriage of two friends. Because the bride had to jump on a plane shortly after the festivities and the groom would be out of town for a month, the cake remained with the Staffords. And the reason I say I have this cake all to myself is because Ben never pulls his weight when it comes to sweets. Blast him!

Anyway, this recipe can be multiplied and turned into a real wedding cake. Last November, I made this exact cake with the exception of the frosting, strawberries and assembly for two dear friends. The lemon-buttermilk cake bakes evenly and is both moist and light. The lemon curd adds a nice tang and helps keep the cake moist. And the bright-white, Swiss Buttercream frosting (made in place of a cream cheese frosting) gives the cake a really festive, professional feel. If you don’t feel like making a Swiss buttercream, which really is not too difficult, a cream cheese or whipped cream frosting will work just as well.

Emily and James’ & Ibeth and James’ Wedding Cake
Adapted From This YouTube Video

Lemon (or Orange) Buttermilk Cake
Yield = 2 9-inch cakes (the amount used in this four-layer cake)

3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 T. baking powder
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, whisked lightly
1¼ cups buttermilk
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice (or orange juice)
1½ tsp. lemon extract (or vanilla extract)
¼ tsp. lemon zest (or orange zest)

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder.

2. In an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about five minutes. Slowly add the whisked eggs to the mixture and beat until combined. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the buttermilk to the mixer. (The recipe says to start and end with flour, but I’m not sure there is any science behind that.) Add the lemon juice, extract and zest, and mix just until combined.

3. If making this layer cake, coat a 9-inch cake pan with nonstick spray (or butter liberally). Pour half of the batter into the pan and bake for about 35 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan for 15 minutes before inverting onto a cooling rack. Note: If you have two pans, bake the cakes simultaneously. If you have only one pan, repeat with remaining batter. Alternatively, bake all the batter at once. The cake will take longer to bake and might not bake as evenly, but it certainly can be done.

Filling for the wedding cake:
Lemon (or Orange) Curd

¼ cup sugar
7 egg yolks
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (or orange juice)
6 T. unsalted butter, room temperature (butter really must be at room temperature)

1. In a double boiler (or a stainless steel bowl over a pot of simmering water), whisk sugar and yolks together until pale yellow. Whisk in the juice. Stir constantly until mixture starts to thicken, about 8 – 10 minutes. (This is always a little tricky to gauge, but you’ll know it’s ready when it starts to thicken.) Remove bowl from heat and slowly whisk in the butter about a tablespoon at a time. This is sort of tedious, but only add more butter once the previous tablespoon has been fully incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap (place the wrap right up against the curd) and chill until ready to use.


Frosting for wedding cake:
For Emily and James’ wedding cake, I made a cream cheese frosting, which I love. For this layer cake, I took a stab at making Swiss Buttercream following the method described on Smitten Kitchen, which worked perfectly. This recipe produces a bright white, more professional looking icing, but either frosting tastes great.

Cream Cheese and Butter Frosting

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
½ tsp. vanilla extract
confectioners’ sugar to taste

Beat cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy. Add vanilla. Add confectioners’ sugar to taste. Chill if not using right away or frost cake immediately. (It’s easier to use if you use it right away.)

Smitten Kitchen’s Swiss Buttercream

For a 9-inch cake (plus filling, or some to spare):
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
26 tablespoons butter, softened (3 sticks plus 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Whisk egg whites and sugar together in a big metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Whisk occasionally until you can’t feel the sugar granules when you rub the mixture between your fingers.

2. Transfer mixture into the mixer and whip until it turns white and about doubles in size. (Here’s a tip: when you transfer to the mixer, make sure you wipe the condensation off the bottom of the bowl so that no water gets into the egg whites. This can keep them from whipping up properly. Ali’s note: I whipped the egg whites in the bowl that fits into my stand mixer so that I didn’t have to transfer anything.)

3. Add the vanilla. Finally, add the butter a stick at a time and whip, whip, whip.

Note: If you refrigerate the buttercream, leave it at room temperature for at least 10 hours before using. Also, the icing has now held up perfectly (on the cake) for three days. I’m not sure if there is any health risk here, but so far it still tastes good, there is no sign of mold, and I have yet to get sick.

Assembly:

If I were to make this cake again, this is what I would do: I would reserve enough of the Swiss Buttercream to swirl all over the top of the cake. Then, I would whisk together equal parts lemon curd and buttercream to spread in between each layer. I find the buttercream to be a tad rich and think the lemon curd would cut it nicely. So, cut each cake in half with a serrated knife. Spread center with lemon curd-buttercream mix, frost top with buttercream, top with strawnberries and serve.

12. August 2008 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Baking, Desserts | 2 comments

Tomatoes: Breakfast, Noon & Night

Tomatoes3

Oh, to live in New York in August. And late July and early September. To have access to New York bagels during tomato season would just be a dream. I’m not trying to dis Bagel Shack (my local bagel shop, which I love) or anything, but there really isn’t anything like a New York bagel.

That said, however, the tomato here is the star. Subpar bagels are just fine when meaty, heirloom tomatoes sit on top of them. This has been my breakfast now for three days in a row: A toasted sesame bagel spread with chive cream cheese (purchased from bagel shack but which could easily be made from scratch) topped with a slice of tomato and sprinkled, of course, with sea salt. Amazing.

Also, I feel I must clarify something I said last post. I do feel that tomatoes, when being prepared for Caprese salad, should be cut into irregular chunks, for reasons explained here. That’s not to say, however, that tomatoes should always be cut this way. The heirloom tomato varieties, in particular, look stunning when cut into rounds, which is a practical shape for certain dishes, namely this breakfast.

Also, it should be noted that tomato rounds look completely different depending on which way the knife passes through the fruit. Cut the tomato crosswise (not through the stem) for the prettiest slice. (In other words, if a tomato is sitting just as it would on a board, you would cut the tomato holding the knife parallel to the board. Does that make sense? Or, turn the tomato on its side, then cut down, perpendicular to the board.)


10. August 2008 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Breakfast, Eating Locally, Vegetarian | 4 comments

Tomato, Basil, Mozzarella

tomatoesbasil

It has been done to death. Caprese salad that is. But there’s a reason it appears on nearly every restaurant menu come summertime: It’s so unbelievably good. I promise I’m not trying to bore you. I just have have a few things to add, in an effort, I hope, to maximize your tomato-eating experience this summer.

1. Tomatoes. I’m sort of stating the obvious here, but likely the tomatoes you pick up at your local farmers’ market will be superior to store-bought varieties. This past Sunday at the San Clemente farmers’ market, I learned from one of the Carlsbad farmers that the darker tomatoes tend to be sweeter. The man wasn’t lying. The tomato pictured in the upper left corner of this photo was the sweetest and tastiest of the bunch. It reminded me of a variety I discovered last summer, back in Philadelphia, called Black Prince, which I loved for the same reasons.

2. Fresh basil. Nothing like it. So fragrant. So sweet.

3. Mozzarella. I hate to be a snob, but buffalo mozzarella is so good, and there’s really nothing like the imported Italian varieties. However, as we are all so aware of our food miles these days, we can make smarter choices. I just discovered this Bubulus Bubalis mozzarella, which is made in Gardena (near L.A.) from the milk of water buffalo grazing in Northern California, if I understood the story correctly. Anyway, it is exceptional. And for Philadelphians, Claudio’s mozzarella is wonderful. (For all of you in between CA and PA, I wish I could give you more direction. Alas, my knowledge extends only to two places.)

4. Salt. Invest in a small tub of nice salt, like this one pictured below. I use it only on special occasions, like when I’m salting tomatoes or salting avocados or salting butter spread onto bread. So, basically I use it every day. My sister found this little tub in France earlier this summer but any variety of nice sea salt will do. (If you can’t resist this precious container, you can buy it from Salt Works.) And don’t be afraid to give the tomatoes a real sprinkling — I swear it makes them sweeter not saltier. Really.

5. Olive Oil. With good tomatoes, a drizzling of extra-virgin olive oil is the only dressing needed. I have yet to add a splash of vinegar to my tomato salads this summer. Though a splash certainly wouldn’t hurt. And it does make a nice little sauce to soak bread in.

6. Preparation. Try cutting your tomatoes into irregular shapes as opposed to thin slices. They look prettier; they’re easier to eat; and the tomatoes taste better, too. Really, they do. Cut the mozzarella the same way. And when you arrange it all on a platter, don’t toss it around to much. Just sprinkle the tomatoes and cheese with salt; tear basil leaves over the top; drizzle it with oil; and serve.



Two very hot peppers, cherry tomatoes, one heirloom tomato and a few very tired sprigs of basil picked from my garden. Yay, the tomatoes are turning red!

I am particularly enjoying the dark red heirloom tomatoes. They are sweet and delicious. I found these along with Bubulus Bubalis mozzarella at the Santa Monica farmers’ market this past Wednesday.

05. August 2008 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Appetizers, Eating Locally, Salads, Side dishes, Vegetarian | 8 comments

Melon & Cucumber Salad with Mint Vinaigrette


melon

So, I sort of have this habit. I tend to add cheese to every salad I make. In large quantities. And often nuts, too. And maybe dried fruit if I don’t have any fresh on hand. I tend to turn salads into mini meals themselves, even when, as I often am, just serving them on the side.

For whatever reason, I refrained from adding more than what was prescribed in this recipe: melon, cucumber, lettuce and a mint vinaigrette. And I’m so glad I did. This salad does not need anything else. It is light, refreshing, summery — perfect as is. Thank you Sarah Cain at the Fair Food Farmstand 2,378 miles away in Philadelphia for supplying such a wonderful recipe in the weekly “At the Farmstand” email.

Now, for my friends out there looking for simple recipes, this one is for you. If you can chop up a melon and a cucumber, you can make this dish. The dressing is made right in the jar, which means no whisking and minimal cleaning. I love it, and you will too.

The dressing for this salad is made right in the jar: Equal parts vinegar and oil along with a pinch of sugar and salt, a dab of mustard and tons of mint and parsley combine to make a bright and flavorful dressing.


Cucumber And Melon Salad with Mint Vinaigrette

Recipe Courtesy of Sarah Cain, Supervisor of the Fair Food Farmstand in Philadelphia
Great with a grilled meat, especially lamb.
Serves 4

½ cup of extra virgin olive oil

½ cup of best white wine vinegar (I used rice vinegar and loved it.)
½ teaspoon of dijon style mustard

3 tablespoons of finely minced fresh mint

1 tablespoon of finely minced parsley

big pinch of sugar

big pinch of salt

2-3 cups mixed honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon, peeled, seeded and diced

2 cups mixed greens

1 English cucumber, diced

1. In a jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the dressing ingredients.
 Shake like crazy. Let stand a room temp for 40 minutes to meld the flavors.


2. Meanwhile, combine the melon, greens and cucumber in a large bowl. (I also added some more mint and parsley (roughly chopped) to the salad.)

3. Shake the dressing vigorously before pouring just enough to moisten the chunks of melon, greens and cucumbers.

4. Serve.

03. August 2008 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Appetizers, Eating Locally, Salads, Salsa, Vegetarian | 3 comments

Fish Tacos, Whisk n’ Ladle, Mango-Jicama Slaw, MSC-Certified Halibut & Reamers

MangoJicama

I’m feeling sort of overwhelmed by everything I want to fit into this post. Bullet points, I hope, will help my cause.

• So, after a week of feasting, I considered, for the first time ever, making tofu for dinner. As I passed down the freezer aisle of Ralph’s, however, a blue-and-white label caught my eye. Much to my surprise (and delight), that label marked an MSC-certified package of halibut steaks. Unlike many labels today, an MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) label truly means something — it is a guarantee for consumers that the purchase of the product will not contribute to the social and environmental problems of overfishing. It also guarantees that the fishermen receive a fair price for their catch. Holding the world’s most rigorous sustainability standard, the MSC has awarded their coveted eco-label to only 31 fisheries worldwide. (You might recall that American Tuna also bears the MSC label.)

• With my discovery, I took the opportunity to make a dish I have been meaning to make since dining with my cyber friend, Melanie Lytle, of Livin La Vida Local at Whisk n’ Ladle in La Jolla. This restaurant strives to use all local ingredients and makes nearly everything in house, including the delectable scone — pistachio-orange, if I recall correctly — with which I began this memorable brunch. (Incidentally, Melanie has just completed a year of eating locally: Read her Long-Winded Summary To a Year of Eating Locally here.)

• Last night, I discovered that the mango-jicama slaw served with the tilapia fish tacos at WnL is surprisingly easy to recreate. Please don’t be frightened or turned off by the idea of julienning or using a mandoline. Dicing the fruit would be just as tasty and effective. In diced form, in fact, the mixture becomes even more versatile — it could be served with tortilla chips or toasted baguette slices for a nice appetizer. Really, this slaw could not be simpler to prepare — you just mix everything together and season with salt and fresh lime juice according to taste. It could be served with chicken, beef, maybe even tofu.

• Last night I also got over the idea that fish should never be frozen. These frozen halibut steaks fried up beautifully, and once wrapped in the tortilla, spread with a dab of sriracha-sour cream and topped with this tasty slaw, the fish becomes a second-string player. Fresh fish, in a way, is better used for simpler preparations, with lemon and herbs, for example, where the flavors of the fish can really shine.

• Lastly, a word about reamers: There is no better tool, I profess, for extracting juice from citrus fruit than a wooden reamer. This one from Sur La Table is fantastic.


Fish Tacos with Mango-Jicama Slaw
Inspired by tacos recently savored at Whisk n’ Ladle restaurant in La Jolla. This recipe calls for julienning the jicama and mangoes, but dicing the fruit will work, too. In fact, this mixture, in diced form, would be yummy served with chips.

For the Slaw:
1 jicama, peeled
2 mangoes, not too ripe, peeled
1 small red onion, peeled, diced to yield about ¾ cup
1-2 chili peppers such as Thai bird or jalapeno or Serrano, finely diced
cilantro to taste, washed and chopped
kosher salt
1-2 limes

1. Using a mandoline, julienne the jicama to yield about 2 cups. Place in a large bowl. Julienne the mangoes (to yield about 2 cups as well) and add to the bowl. (Alternatively, just dice the fruit.) Add the onions, peppers and cilantro to the bowl. Season with a big pinch of salt. Juice one lime over top of the mixture. (A reemer is a great tool for this step.) Toss gently, then taste. Adjust with more lime juice or salt. Set aside until ready to serve. Note: Can be made ahead, but not too far ahead — no more than an hour is ideal.

Sriracha-Sour Cream
Whisk n’ Ladle spread some sort of creamy, tomato salsa across their tortillas. It definitely was something more substantial than sriracha sauce, but this combination served the purpose quite nicely.

1. Mix sriracha with sour cream according to taste.

Assemble the tacos:

fish: Any white fish — halibut, tilapia, cod, sea bass, etc. — works really nicely in fish tacos. I found MSC-certified halibut steaks in my Ralph’s freezer section.
small, white flour tortillas

1. Heat the oven to about 450ºF. Wrap as many tortillas you want in foil and place in the oven to keep warm. Make sure the tortillas are hot and pliable before serving.

2. Season the fish lightly with kosher salt. Pan-fry or grill the fish until done.

3. To assemble, spread a small amount of the sriracha-sour cream on the bottom of the taco. Top with the fish. Top with the slaw. Repeat.

When you see this blue-and-white eco-label, you can be confident your purchase has not contributed to overfishing or the harming of marine ecosystems. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a global, nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the best environmental choice in seafood.

A dab (or a dousing) of sriracha mixed with sour cream adds a nice kick to fish tacos.

31. July 2008 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Eating Locally, Entrees, Fish, Mexican, Salsa | 1 comment

Ferry Building Farmers’ Market Primavera Mexican Stand + So Much Good Food

fishtacos

Two years ago, while visiting San Francisco for a wedding, Ben and I discovered the Primavera Mexican stand at the Saturday Ferry Building farmers’ market. I have not stopped dreaming about the guajillo-chile chilaquiles since. Yesterday, for breakfast, after waiting in line for 30 minutes, Ben and I savored this dish again, washing it all down with a watermelon-lime agua fresca. We didn’t eat again until dinner.

Anyway, I assure you this is not a comprehensive showing of everything we’ve been eating the past few days during our drive from L.A. to San Francisco. Two of the best meals — dinner at Burma Superstar last night with five friends and breakfast at Tartine this morning — in fact, have not been photo-documented at all. I am overwhelmed by all of the good food we are finding in San Francisco, including a home-cooked meal prepared by friends beginning with Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, starring a lentil and grape salad and ending with thinly sliced melon drizzled with freshly grated ginger. (So yummy!) The tea leaf salad (allegedly seasoned with one million spices) at the Burmese restaurant and everything we sampled this morning at Tartine — a frangipane croissant, a morning bun and a slice of ham quiche — also top the list of particularly memorable bites.

Red Snapper tacos and a red snapper sandwich at the Sea Shanty in Cayucos (located just north of San Luis Obispo).


Cocktails and a cheese plate at Nepenthe in Big Sur.


27. July 2008 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Breakfast, Eating Locally, Travel | 2 comments

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