Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mandoline and Matchstick Salads

Lately, my salads have been all about slices and strips.

Heart of the City market by Jen MaiserA recent market report segment on KCRW's Good Food got me started. They talked with Evan Funke (no relation to Tobias F√ľnke, as far as I know) of the Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. He suggested making a salad of thin slices of fennel, apple and fuyu persimmon (the firm kind -- ripe hachiya are essentially impossible to slice) in a Meyer lemon vinaigrette.  Unfortunately, I was weeks behind on my Good Food podcasts, so by the time I heard the interview, persimmon season was almost over. I managed to get a few from Kaki Farm and gave it a try. The salad was good, but diminished by over the hill persimmons. Next year, when the items make their  simultaneous appearance, this will be high on my list.

Then, an article in the soon to be relocated San Francisco Chronicle food section about large Asian radishes (like daikon) inspired me to try some salads with daikon and Asian pear.  The first one was matchsticks of daikon and Asian pear and strips of radicchio in a lemon dressing.  The second was matchsticks of daikon radish and apple pear along with napa cabbage in dressing of lemon zest, a dash of sesame oil, a splash of soy sauce, some neutral oil and ginger-infused-rice vinegar (i.e., I soaked grated ginger in rice vinegar for an hour then strained out the solids). I usually don't like daikon, but these two treatments changed my mind (temporarily). The interesting texture, sweetness and tartness of the Asian pear made an excellent partner for the slightly bitter vegetables in each salad. The ginger-infused vinegar is worth another try too, perhaps with a much longer infusing time or some strips of lemon zest added for another flavor.

Finally, I had some extra fennel in the refrigerator last week, so I went for one of my favorites, a salad of thinly sliced fennel, mushrooms, and parmesan in a lemon dressing. Essentially, you slice a bulb of fennel as thinly as possible, slice a handful of white mushrooms somewhat less thinly, and toss them with a dressing made of lemon juice, salt, lemon zest, mashed garlic, and crushed fennel seeds. Let that marinate for a little while, then, just before serving, shave a generous amount of good Parmesan on top and season with salt and pepper.  (A recipe is in The Greens Cookbook if you want detailed instructions)

Photo of persimmons from Jen Maiser's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: Snacks for the Ears
Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Embracing the bitter: putting radicchio on center stage

Radicchio makes a supporting appearance in most salad mixes as a color counterpoint and additional flavor component, but rarely has a starring role. Some reasons for this are probably related to its bitterness, unavailability, high price and the idea that salad greens shouldn't be cooked. But it's actually a very flexible vegetable — a 1997 article in Saveur (No. 23) mentions an Italian cookbook with over 600 recipes for radicchio, including dessert.

Perhaps as a pseudo-homeopathic cure to a personally challenging 2008, I've been seeking radicchio lately, eating it on its own as a hot side dish, using it in pasta, and as a cold salad. Deborah Madison's epic tome, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, has a recipe for seared radicchio which I've posted in an adapted version below. It's a nice combination of smokiness and bitterness. A recipe from Saveur is also a good way to experience radicchio at nearly full power. Wedges of the scarlet leaves are blanched in a bath of vinegar, water, bay leaf and black peppercorns for about a minute. After draining well, they are tossed with a generous amount of olive oil and refrigerated overnight. A garnish of hard boiled egg or parmesan cheese is all they need before serving. The blanching extracts some of the bitterness, yet leaves a salad that is bracing.

The other night I need something starchy to go with a parmesan custard and vegetable salad, so I threw together pasta with garlic and radicchio. Here's a rough recipe:
Bring a pot of salted water to boil and get out some pasta (I used ditalini because they were in my pasta pantry). Add the pasta to the water so that it will be done about a minute after the garlic is soft (you'll want to scoop the pasta directly from the cooking water into the skillet).

In a medium skillet, slowly cook a few cloves of minced garlic in a lot of olive oil over low heat (if it looks like the garlic will be cooked before the pasta is ready, remove it from the heat). Chop some radicchio into strips. Rinse and dry it. A minute before the pasta is done, add the radicchio to the garlic and oil.

Scoop or carry the pasta from the water into the skillet. Toss well and adjust salt and pepper.
Garnish with freshly grated parmesan and toasted walnuts or pine nuts.

It's not the most elegant pasta dish in the universe, but was quick and satisfying.

Recipe: Seared Radicchio
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Several small, compact heads of radicchio
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
A well-seasoned cast iron skillet, griddle or grill*

Cut the heads of radicchio into wedges that are about 2" tall on the outer edge. Cutting through the core can help to keep the wedges intact. Reserve any leaves that fall off for a salad or to add to the hot pan near the end.

Generously brush both sides of each wedge with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Allow to marinate for about 30 minutes, turning now and then to redistribute the oil.

Turn the heat under the skillet to medium-high. Allow it to heat up for a few minutes -- you want a very hot pan for the searing. Place the wedges of radicchio in the hot pan in a single layer. After a few minutes, turn them over to cook the other side for a few minutes.  In the last minute or two of the process you can add any leaves that fell off while cutting the head into wedges.

Garnish with additional olive oil, thin slivers of cheese (parmesan, ricotta salata, aged pecorino), or perhaps a dash of balsamic vinegar.

* Uncoated pans made of other materials like anodized aluminum or stainless steel might also work well. Non-stick pans are not recommended because high heat is used.

Photo of radicchio taken by a friend of my family at the Campo dei Fiori market in Rome.

Random link from the archive: Laksa, Part 1
Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Celebrating Election Day and Inauguration Day

As I planned an inauguration day breakfast with a friend, I remembered an election night many years ago. That night, as part of a celebratory dinner, I made some flag-adorned chocolate truffles and took pictures of them. So I dug into my shoebox of pre-digital-era photographs, eventually finding two photos from the evening. I initially couldn't remember whether the photos were from 1992 or 1996 and the photos were not dated. Fortunately, one of the photos included a New York Times Arts Section with the headline "Time to Change the Clock on Times Square" that enabled me to find the date in the New York Times database: November 1, 1992.

They tasted much better than they looked, made even better by the excitement of the night. If I remember correctly, my chocolate truffles in those days were made using a recipe from Alice Medrich's difficult but delicious Cocolat.

My friend and I brought the red, white and blue theme to breakfast with blue cornmeal crepes (using heirloom cornmeal and local milk, flour and eggs*), white yogurt (from Straus Family Creamery in Marin County) and red plum jam (homemade by me using fruit from a backyard tree and local honey). Although I couldn't have known it when I pulled it out of the refrigerator before the ceremony began, we also had homemade Meyer lemon marmalade with a color that almost matched Michelle Obama's dazzling garb (using the recipe and helpful photographic instructions from Elise). The red, white, and blue, plus a bit of fruit on the side made for a tasty start to a remarkable day.
* The crepe batter was actually a pale shade of green because of the mixture of blue corn meal and bright yellow yolks from pastured eggs.

Adapted from a post at The Ethicurean.

Random link from the archive: Singapore Food Explanations

Technorati tags: Inauguration : Barack Obama : Food

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Oakland's Casserole House is a mirage for this Midwesterner

To a homesick Midwesterner driving down Telegraph through the Temescal district, the sight of a restaurant called "Casserole House" might bring thoughts of a place where cans of Campbell's soup are delivered by the truckload, where the pantry is always stocked with cans of crispy onions, where Big Ten sports is constantly on the TV, and where you'll see all the people from Michigan pointing to places on their hands to show where they come from. The menu would be stocked with classics like Green Bean Casserole, Tuna Noodle casserole, Frank and Noodle Supper, House Cleaning Day Dinner, Prairie Hot Dish, and Tater Tot Hot Dish. Vernors, a long list of Faygo flavors, and a variety of beers from the Midwest would provide liquid refreshment. 

But alas, the Casserole House on Telegraph is not that place. The casseroles in that house are steaming, bubbling, sometimes fiery stone bowls of tofu, vegetables, meats and seafood cooked in a Korean style. The East Bay Express says that "...many dishes are hot here, but rather than simply assault the mouth, this hotness brings other flavors alive, suddenly spotlighting subtleties you might otherwise miss: It’s the burning road that brings you to a higher place."  I haven't eaten at the casserole house yet, and doubt that I will, seeing that my loyalty lies with the Pyung Chang Tofu House just up the street.


Random link from the archive: Boat Chaat - The Return of Whole Urad Dal

Technorati tags: Oakland : Korea : casseroles : Food

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The grocery bag pannier makes shopping by bicycle easier

photo of grocery bag pannier

If you've been thinking about using your bicycle to go shopping or to commute to work, but wondered how how you'll carry everything, here's something that works for me:  the "grocery bag pannier."  These carrying devices, which attach to a standard rear rack, are the size of a standard paper grocery bag and have a semi-rigid frame that allows easy access.  They also have a detachable shoulder strap when you want to carry the pannier around while you do your shopping.

photo of grocery bag pannierThe biggest advantage of the grocery bag pannier over a backpack or a standard bicycle pannier is that it has no top. This allows one to easily carry long produce, like my recent purchases of two three-foot long bunches of fennel and a two-foot long bunch of leeks. 

Variations on the grocery bag pannier are available from several sources, including REI, Jandd Mountaineering, Inc. and Missing Link in Berkeley.

Random link from the archive: Banana Leaf Curry
Technorati tags: Bicycling

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A surprising source for Christmas glassware

Photo of Arby's Christmas GlassDuring the Christmas season, the cupboards in my parents kitchen undergo a major switch — the subtly patterned plates, bowls, and glasses are replaced by items with vibrant vines of holly, bright red berries, and other traditional Christmas icons. One of our favorite drinking glasses is pictured to the left.  It has a thick glass base that is slightly larger than the rim. Near the base, holly leaves and berries sit above of a red line and a green line. It's a nice design.

On the first night of my visit to Michigan, I noticed the following below the red line as I set down my cold glass of Vernors: "ARBY'S (R) 1983 CHRISTMAS COLLECTION." I almost fell out of my chair. It's hard to imagine anything so subtle coming out of the fast food chains (perhaps, however, there was a kid's movie in 1983 called "Holly the Elf who went to Design School" to which this was a tie-in.).

My parents tried to remember how they obtained the first glasses, and although they can't remember exactly, they have a feeling that there was a deal where you could buy the glasses for a discount price if you bought a sandwich (perhaps it was the Big Beef and Cheddar that 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy's ex-wife loves so much). During those years, Arby's was a veritable font of glassware, with additional offerings of footed sherbet glasses (which we also own) and water goblets (which we don't).

Unfortunately, surviving twenty-five Christmas seasons hasn't done much for their value — a quick check of eBay found an average price of only few dollars per glass.

Random link from the archive: Cardamom Butter Squares

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Looping back to the 18th century by concentrating on your ingredients

This year's food issue from the New Yorker included an article by Fuchsia Dunlop about a restaurateur in Hangzhou, China (a city 150 km SE of Shanghai), that is sourcing local and organic ingredients for the restaurant, as well as keeping a log of all of the food purchases. For the most part, the article didn't do much for me, but two things jumped out at me.

First, in order to prevent being cheated by his suppliers, the restaurateur requires that they document the purchase somehow, perhaps with a photo of the pig, chickens, or farm that supplied the vegetables (the restaurant also performs inspections from time to time). Then, inside the restaurant, they provide a "purchase diary" for customers' inspection that shows details about the evening's ingredients, including the contracts, photos, and other relevant information. I can't recall hearing about any U.S. restaurants that do anything like this.

Second, the idea that fine cooking is mostly about getting the best ingredients is a concept that is often associated with Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant and Alice Waters. When Waters started following the philosophy in the 1970s, it was almost revolutionary when compared with prevailing philosophies in the U.S. of 'cheap food at any cost' and convenience over all. But, of course, Waters wasn't doing anything new — concentrating on great ingredients is a very old concept. Dunlop's article provides an 18th-century example from China:

He [restaurateur Dai] had read the work of Yuan Mei, China’s Brillat-Savarin, an eighteenth-century scholar-gentleman who abandoned his career as an imperial bureaucrat to retire to Nanjing, where he designed his own garden and wrote a seminal cookbook, “Food Lists of the Garden of Contentment.” Although, as an educated man, Yuan Mei probably never cooked himself, he was a meticulous gourmet. He recorded his impressions at dinners in grand houses and collected recipes from Buddhist monasteries. He gave his chefs detailed instructions and quizzed them on culinary practice. He had a dislike of flashy cooking, and once wrote of going home hungry after a forty-dish banquet.

...He [Dai] told me that Yuan Mei had insisted that the art of cookery began with the selection of the raw ingredients. “He believed that a chef could take credit for only sixty per cent of the success of a banquet, and that whoever did the shopping should take credit for the rest,” Dai said. “He wrote that just as a stupid person would remain stupid even if taught by Confucius and Mencius, a poor ingredient would be tasteless even if cooked by Yi Ya, the legendary Chinese chef of the Zhou dynasty.”

I don't have much to say right now about China or the article, but wanted to point out that today's focus on great ingredients and local foods is not so unusual — instead it's the late 20th century's obsession with efficiency, processing, and preservation that is the anomalous behavior.

Photo of tea fields in Longjing from tzejen's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

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Technorati tags: China : Eat Local : Food