Sunday, August 31, 2008

August Daring Bakers: Chocolate Eclairs and My Sticky Little Secret


I officially have a tummy ache from sneaking licks of the different elements of this month's Daring Bakers challenge, and all is right with the world. And in case you were wondering, the tummy ache was worth it.

I was excited from the get-go for August's challenge, because it wasn't a multi-layer cake that required the dreaded buttercream, and because it was something I'd never made before: Pierre Herme's chocolate eclairs. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I've ever even tried homemade eclairs, let alone bake them myself.

[so this is what pate a choux looks like]

For this reason, eclairs have always seemed like the kind of cheap treat that you get with a supermarket assortment of party pastries. Not so. I learned my lesson, and I also learned how to make 1) choux pastry, 2) creme patissiere, or pastry cream, and 3) salted caramel. A pretty good month, don't you think?

[the only downside: caramel cleanup]


I more or less followed the Pierre Herme recipe, with a few important changes. Herme calls for a basic choux pastry, filled with a chocolate pastry cream and topped with a chocolate glaze. Chocolate is great and all, but I wanted a little something extra....something like salted caramel.

[caramel in the making]

In the spirit of challenging myself, I made two small batches of salted caramel (my first caramel sauce, ever!). Let me tell you something about homemade salted caramel. It is awesome. Totally, mind-blowingly, deliciously awesome. With just a hint of burnt sugar and a subtle, salty punch, it could just be the solution to all things pastry. Having made my chocolate pastry cream (I first tried a regular pastry cream, and let's just say things got a little, um, lumpy), I added the cooled caramel directly to it. Bingo. At first taste, the chocolate cream had been a little flat, but the caramel perked it right up. The second batch I used to drizzle over the filled eclairs, which created a zebra-esque aesthetic when combined with the chocolate ganache I used for the eclair glaze. Because the salted caramel was a bit sticky for drizzling, I mixed it with a spoonful of fromage blanc to get the proper consistency. Hot damn. Let's leave it at that.

But back to the recipe. Once I had my creative fun with the pastry cream and glazes, it was time to look that choux pastry in the face. I've never made a choux, which is also used for making cream puffs. I was a little anxious about the baking, because I'd heard about some deflating pastry shells, but I was sure to bake them amply, so that they were rigid and deep golden brown, and this did the trick. Still without a proper pastry bag, I used a big zip-top plastic bag to pipe little mini-eclair shapes, and some freaky-looking round specimens, onto a baking sheet:



Then I baked them for about 20 minutes. They were puffed and lovely by the time I took them out of the oven:


Once they were cool, I sliced them in half. They were pretty much hollow inside, as if begging me to stuff them full of delicious chocolate-caramel goodness:


From there, all I had to do was fill them with the caramel-chocolate crack (or pastry cream, if you prefer), and drizzle them with more crack (chocolate ganache and caramel glaze).

When I warned my mom about the impending baking project in my apartment, she was so excited (she's an eclair connoisseur, apparently), that she practically demanded that I invite her to share in the fruits of my labor. She and my dad came over for some serious eclair indulgence. And the verdict? Everybody enjoyed the eclairs, although the chocolate filling wasn't as popular as I thought it would be. Alone it was incredibly good, but there is something about a vanilla-filled eclair with a chocolate glaze on top that is just hard to beat. If I ever made these again, I would definitely go for a vanilla pastry cream, perhaps with caramel. My only other minor complaint about this recipe is that I found it difficult to make the eclairs pretty. What with all the filling and the glazing, they can look a bit messy. And since they aren't supposed to be made in advance, timing can get a little iffy when serving these to guests. Still, though, the good outweighs the bad for this month.


As far as the Daring Bakers challenges go, this one was low on the time-intensity scale (at least compared to July's challenge, which took two whole days), but produced very tasty results.
Thanks to this month's hosts, Tony and Meeta, for a great challenge! Be sure to check out the Daring Bakers blogroll for some more renditions of the Pierre Herme eclair.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Single Girl Salad


Ok, so I'm not really a single girl, and even if I were, I'm not so sure I'd be hanging around by myself at night making salads. Or would I?

In any case, Jonathan is still in California, which means I'm here in Boston by myself. Cooking for one is an interesting subject; in fact I've started reading a collection of essays entirely devoted to the topic. Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler, contains essays from foodies, chefs, and others about the intriguing art of dining and cooking alone.


I don't want to get philosophical about the subject, but suffice it to say that cooking for one is an art that takes some practice. For some reason, when I'm alone, I'm content to make meals out of scrappy bits of food that I find in the refrigerator - some yogurt, a few grapes, too many crackers, and frozen peas, for example - which is something I try to avoid when cooking a "meal" for two.

This salad, though, is the perfect meal for one. It requires minimal dish- and cookware (and thus minimal cleanup), is packed with vegetables and more filling proteins, and is pretty enough to look like a real meal, which is never something to be overlooked.


I threw this salad together last night for dinner, mostly because I had a few odds and ends in the refrigerator that needed to be consumed. Not expecting anything wildly exciting, I was amazed at how heavenly this simple combination tasted, and was reminded of the incredible deliciousness and versatility of a simple poached egg. Poached just until the white is set, the egg spreads its runny yolk over the whole salad, making for a wonderfully rich, but not heavy, dressing. Eating a poached egg this way is so good it almost makes me feel guilty, like I'm drinking melted ice cream or licking butter...but it's just a single egg. A true culinary miracle if ever there was one.

I'm not sure I'll ever be the type to prepare a five-course meal with all the bells and whistles if I'm the sole diner. I am, however, a staunch supporter of meals like this, which are delicious and fresh and require just the right amount of effort to make it worthwhile to prepare in single servings. Guess what I'm having for lunch today?


A couple quick notes: I added broccoli to this recipe, because that's what I had on hand and it worked well with the egg. Any green vegetable - zucchini, green beans, peas - would probably work, too. Whatever substitutions you do make though, be sure not to miss out on the egg. It turns this salad into a meal, and is wildly delectable, to boot. Speaking of the egg, here is how I cook it (and the rest of the components): I use one small frying pan, first cook the corn, and then cook the broccoli. Meanwhile, I boil some water in a tea kettle. By the time I'm ready to cook the egg, I pour some hot water into the small frying pan, add some salt, and then add the raw egg. It takes only a couple of minutes to poach, so watch it carefully, and make sure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. You can plop the egg right into your salad bowl, and break the yolk so that it dresses your vegetables. Yum!


Single Girl Salad (serves 1)

a few big handfuls of baby lettuces
1 ear of corn, kernels removed
1 tomato, roughly chopped (I used 2 small heirlooms)
1 scallion, chopped
a few pieces of broccoli (or other green vegetable)
handful of canned chickpeas or other cooked legumes (optional)
2-3 splashes balsamic vinegar
sea salt and pepper, to taste
1 egg

Directions:

First, chop and salt tomato. Set aside. Start heating water in a tea kettle (for poaching the egg later). Remove kernels from the ear of corn, and saute for about 5 minutes in a small frying pan with some salt and pepper. Meanwhile, chop broccoli into small pieces and slice the scallion. When corn is softened and just beginning to caramelize, add a splash of balsamic vinegar to the pan and cook for a minute more. Arrange greens in a bowl, and then add the cooked corn to the greens. Now add the broccoli to the pan with a bit of water, cover, and steam with some salt and pepper until crisp-tender. Add broccoli, scallions, and chickpeas (if using) to the salad, and then add the tomatoes with another splash of vinegar. Now poach the egg: add the (now hot) water to the small frying pan, add some salt, and bring to a gentle boil. Crack the egg into a small cup, and then very carefully transfer the egg to the water. You can tilt the pan slightly so that the egg stays near the edge and doesn't stick to the bottom. Spoon water over the egg and poach just until the white is set, about 2 minutes. Carefully remove the egg and place on top of the salad, breaking the yolk to dress the vegetables.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Zucchini Angst


If, like me, you have been making your way around FoodBlogLand lately, you've probably noticed a proliferation of recipes designed to "use up" excess zucchini.

The most popular of these is the infamous zucchini bread. Reading zucchini bread recipes presents several problems that I find a bit annoying. Aside from the general ubiquity of zucchini bread at the end of the summer, the general attitude towards the pastry is what I find bothersome.


I'll explain. First of all, there is the "wow, I made a cake with ZUCCHINI, and people still liked it!" reaction to making zucchini bread. I hate to burst any bubbles, but let's be serious here. Most zucchini breads are filled with butter, sugar, eggs, and cinnamon, and are merely confetti-ed with little bits of shredded zucchini. This isn't to say that zucchini doesn't play an important role in zucchini bread (it adds nice texture and moistness, for example), but let's not pretend that we're shocked that something filled with the regular cast of cake characters (despite the fact that it contains a VEGETABLE!) can taste yummy and sweet and delicious.

Besides, who hasn't heard of or tasted zucchini bread before? It's not like it was invented yesterday, people.


My second complaint is that people often act like they are forced to make zucchini bread because they have excess/leftover zucchini. I have no problem with making zucchini bread for the sake of making zucchini bread - it is delicious, after all. Honestly, though, a loaf of zucchini bread uses up two zucchini at most (and often less), which, in the grand zucchini scheme, isn't all that much. Besides, you could easily use up that much zucchini in a far less labor-intensive preparation, like steaming or sauteing, or tossing a diced zucchini into pasta sauce, grains, or an omelette. My theory is that most zucchini bread makers want to eat cake first, and zucchini second.

And finally, what really bothers me the most is that all recipes for zucchini bread seem to come with a complaint about how dreadfully fertile and prolific somebody's garden is. How awful to have fresh produce all summer long, then, to top it all off, be forced to make....zucchini bread!


Ok, I'm being sarcastic here. The root of my zucchini bread angst might be that I'm a bit jealous of everyone who has a summer garden full of things like zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. Zucchini is not something to be "used up," but rather something to be emphatically enjoyed. Even in zucchini bread.

Despite my complaints, I can't deny that zucchini bread is just so tasty, and the little green flecks that freckle the bread are just so appealing. So here is a little riff on an old summer favorite, which I don't make to "use up" anything, but rather to enjoy the bounty of late summer produce. And yes, I am one of the few people who buys zucchini to use for baking!

This is more of a snack/breakfast version of zucchini bread, as opposed to the more dessert-y and cake-y kinds. I love the intermingling of ginger and lemon here, with the tang of the lemon playing off of the slight spice of freshly-grated ginger. I used this recipe to make two mini-loaves and nine mini-muffins, but it would also be the right size for one regular loaf. Enjoy!


Buy My Zucchini Bread (or, Lemon-Ginger Zucchini Bread)

1 1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. oat bran
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. dried ginger
pinch each cloves and nutmeg
1/4 c. turbinado sugar
2 medium zucchini, grated and squeezed dry
2 eggs, separated
3/4 c. buttermilk
2 tbs. honey
1 tbs. molasses
1 tsp. vanilla extract
zest from half of a lemon
1 tbs. freshly-grated ginger

Directions:

In a large bowl, mix flour, oat bran, baking soda, baking powder, salt, spices, and sugar. In a smaller bowl, mix buttermilk, honey, molasses, egg yolks, vanilla, lemon zest, and ginger. Keep egg whites separate and whisk until they are frothy. Make sure zucchini is squeezed dry, then add it along with the buttermilk mixture to the dry ingredients. Stir until just barely mixed, then fold in the frothy egg whites until just incorporated. Pour batter into greased mini-loaf pans, a regular loaf pan, or muffin tins. Bake at 375 F for about 15-20 minutes for mini-loaves, and adjust baking times for smaller or larger vessels.


Monday, August 25, 2008

Back in Action!


After a whirlwind tour of wine country and a sleepless red-eye, I'm finally back home and ready to cook!

I had a wonderful trip and I'm a bit sad to be leaving San Francisco, which has one of the most vibrant and exciting food cultures of any city I've been to (not that I've been to all that many, but still, it's totally awesome).

In addition to the foodie treats I talked about in previous posts, some of the other highlights included a trip to the famous organic grocery store Rainbow, which has more bulk bins than any of the Whole Foods I've been to combined, and a lovely dinner at a seafood restaurant in Berkeley, where I had grilled calamari with pesto and giant lima beans.

At a Whole Foods in Mill Valley, California, I sampled (ok, I ate the whole bag) some amazingly sweet and delicious figs, rounding out my whole California produce binge.

My last two days in California were spent touring wine country once again, but this time I was sure to explore the culinary gems of Napa and Sonoma in addition to tasting some lovely wines. On Friday night we ate in downtown Sonoma at The Girl and the Fig, which has one of the nicest outdoor patios I've seen. I had a cranberry bean soup and a salad with grilled figs (how could I resist?), pecans, and goat cheese. It was everything that dinner in wine country should be.

The next morning, we trekked out to Sebastopol on a mission to find the famed Wild Flour Bread, a bakery that eschews electric machinery for manual labor and a wood-fired oven. The sticky cinnamon rolls were out of this world, and the sour dark rye, which was encrusted in caraway seeds, was unlike any other bread I've ever had. We all agreed it was well worth the drive.

Being a New Englander at heart, I couldn't resist the opportunity to seek out some freshly-harvested Gravenstein apples, which are Sebastopol's claim to fame (at least in my book). Like my favorite New England varieties, Gravensteins are slightly tart, crisp, and mottled red and green. We found some at an out-of-the-way farm which also grows 26 other apple varieties, most of which appear in September. I stowed three away on the plane home, and now have just one left. Those Gravensteins have started making me a bit anxious for apple season in our neck of the woods...

The humid weather here doesn't seem quite ready to yield to autumn produce yet, even though I think I'm ready for it. Despite all of the sweet, juicy deliciousness of California's summer bounty, the fall harvest - apples, pears, squash, and more squash, is still my favorite. The recipe today is a hearty, yet light dish that doesn't require any fancy fall produce. In fact, it's a riff on the soup I had at The Girl and the Fig, made with dried cranberry beans. It's easy and delicious, and makes a lovely late-summer meal that hints at the fast-approaching deliciousness of fall.


Smooth and Simple Bean Soup

1/2 lb. dried cranberry, borlotti, or Roman beans
1 medium onion
1 carrot
1/2 bay leaf
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
plenty of water
sea salt and black pepper, to taste
red chili flakes or aleppo pepper, to taste
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1/2 tsp. herbs de Provence, crushed
1 tbs. white wine vinegar
high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Directions:

Prepare beans: Rinse and pick through dried beans, then place in a pot and cover by about 1 1/2 inches with cold water. Place pot over medium heat, bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let sit, covered, for about 1 hour. After beans have soaked, roughly chop the carrot and onion, and add them to the pot with the beans. Add the bay leaf, garlic, and a sprinkling of chili flakes, and return to medium heat. Once the pot is simmering, reduce heat and continue to simmer until beans are toothsome and vegetables are soft, about 30 minutes. Check beans regularly and add water if the liquid level is low. Once cooked, season generously with salt and pepper. Using an immersion blender (or regular blender), puree the soup until it is completely smooth. Adjust seasonings and add additional spices and herbs. Add water to soup to achieve desired consistency. Finally, add vinegar, and adjust seasonings once more. Reheat, if necessary, and serve with a drizzle of good-quality olive oil and a few leaves of parsley or cilantro, to garnish.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Making Do

Could it be? A real-time recipe? Here in Hawaii we do have a pretty nicely-equipped kitchen, and have been cooking all of our dinners. Mostly we’ve been making lots of fresh fish, with salads and grains to round out our meals.

I did, however, have some baking ingredients left over from our ice cream sandwich experiment, and some bananas left in the bottom of a hiking pack were just screaming to be made into banana bread.

I don’t have my normal banana bread ingredients (like baking powder, for example) handy, but I made do with what was available. In addition to the box of baking soda used to freshen the refrigerator, this included two fresh lilikoi (passion fruits), whose tropically-scented pulp found its way into this loaf.

It’s not the prettiest bread I’ve ever made (and you could say I don’t have the pictures, to prove it), but my banana-lilikoi loaf was hearty and tasty, and made a delicious snack for today’s hike along the rugged Na Pali coast, on the northern edge of Kauai. So next time you’re in Hawaii, with a kitchen that isn’t yours, no baking powder, some blackened bananas, and a few ripe lilikoi, you might want to give this recipe a go. Until then, I’d suggest sticking with your regular banana bread recipe.

Making Do Banana-Lilikoi Loaf

2 c. whole wheat flour

2 tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

heaping 1/3 c. brown sugar

1 ½ tsp. cinnamon

4 small, ripe bananas

pulp of two ripe lilikoi

1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

2 tbs. melted butter

1 tbs. olive oil

2 eggs, beaten

¾ c. nonfat plain yogurt (or however much it takes to make a banana bread-like batter)

Directions:

In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients, including sugar. In a separate bowl, mash bananas and lilikoi pulp until mixture is as smooth as you can manage. To this mixture, add melted butter, oil, beaten eggs, and vanilla, and mix well. Add banana mixture to dry ingredients, then add yogurt and mix until combined. Add more yogurt if batter is too dry. Pour batter into a loaf pan, and bake at 375 F for about 40 minutes, until top is browned and tester inserted into center of loaf comes out perfectly clean.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Not Your Average Market

[farmers market, Kauai, Hawaii]


In the past two days, I've had the rare privilege of going to not just one, but two incredible farmers markets.

The first, on Tuesday, was my beloved Ferry Building farmers market, in San Francisco. I've already written about this market before, so I'll just mention the salient points of my excursion: the summer produce (stone fruits, mostly) was simply incredible this time around. I've never loved plums, but the "flavor kings" and vast variety of pluots that I sampled at the market were the sweetest and most fragrant fruity morsels I've ever had. The white nectarines and peaches - quite floral in taste and aroma - were also divine.

[green and purple eggplant]


And then of course there were the gravensteins. I'd heard of this apple variety before, but hadn't ever tasted it; it reminded me of my favorite mcCouns and paula reds (tart and crisp New England varieties) that I devour for two straight weeks at the beginning of each autumn. I'll happily eat galas, fujis, and pink ladies during the spring and summer, but autumn apples, best eaten chilled or on the ride home after picking them up, are my favorite fruit. I purchased three lovely gravensteins and reveled in the anticipation of more delicious apples to come.

[dragon fruit]

Now, though, I'm far from any place with an acceptably chilly autumn; I'm writing this post from a breezy house in Kauai, Hawaii. We ventured to a farmers market here just this afternoon, which was a far cry (both in terms of offerings and overall feel) from the Ferry Building. Nonetheless, it was quite the experience, and we walked away with, among other things, two purplish avocados, one miniature pineapple, four passion fruits (or lilikoi, as they are called here), one dragon fruit, a bunch of Chinese long beans, and several mangoes.

I've never actually tried either a passion fruit or a dragon fruit, so I'm looking forward to those experiences. And I'm assuming the mini pineapple will taste like a regular pineapple (but it is SO much cuter), but can't yet say so for sure.


As for our other Hawaiian food options, fish seems to be the food of the week; we enjoyed fish and shrimp tacos last night (homemade in our surprisingly well-equipped kitchen). Excited to be able to cook again, I also made a special dessert of homemade chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches. The ice cream was vanilla Haagen Dazs, but the cookies were fresh from the oven.


In the spirit of farmers markets, I've decided to share this simple (and adaptable) pasta recipe in keeping with my pattern of sharing some Red Ramekin kitchen dinner staples. I make this dish with whatever green vegetables and herbs I get at the farmers market, which lately has been broccoli, chard, and basil. Spinach, zucchini, or other firm vegetables would surely work, as well. If you are a tomato sauce kind of person, try adding a couple chopped tomatoes, or a can of diced San Marzanos to the sauce before adding the pasta.

[more fruit]

Farmers Market Pasta

8 oz. whole wheat spaghetti or capellini
1 bunch chard, tough stems removed and sliced into ribbons
1 small head broccoli, chopped into small pieces
2-3 tbs. olive oil, plus a bit more for drizzling
1 shallot, minced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3-4 tbs. tomato paste
pinch of red pepper flakes
generous splash of white wine
1 handful of fresh basil
salt, pepper, and Italian seasonings, to taste
freshly grated parmesan, for serving

Directions:

Bring large pot of salted water to boil and add pasta. Meanwhile, prepare sauce. Heat oil in a large skillet. Add garlic, shallot, and red pepper flakes and saute until softened slightly. Add tomato paste and cook for another few seconds, then add a hearty splash of white wine to the pan. After a few seconds, add broccoli and saute for a minute or so. Add a bit of pasta water if mixture is dry, then cover and let the broccoli soften a bit. Add chard. Season with salt and pepper and Italian herbs, if desired. Once pasta has cooked to al dente, drain quickly and add to skillet. Toss everything together, adding more pasta water and another drizzle of oil until desired consistency is achieved. Adjust for seasonings, then add fresh basil leaves and toss to combine. Serve immediately with a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

If I Could Cook, I'd Make This...

We spent most of today in sunny Palo Alto, where I took advantage of the sun and did a short hike near the Stanford campus. The enormous weather differences between the South Bay and San Francisco never cease to amaze me though; by the time I made it back to the city, the car was swimming through heavy fog and the temperature had dropped by 20 degrees.

This wet, chilly weather makes me want to make soups and stews, hearty and full of spicy heat to fend off the damp air. Unfortunately, I'm kitchen-less, but if I had my way I think I'd make a big pot of Indian-style lentils; warm and fragrant with turmeric and ginger and with just a bit of heat from some hot pepper.

I often make Indian food, because it is not only incredibly healthy and versatile (we eat it during the dog days of summer, the dreariest days of winter, and everything in between), but also incredibly delicious. It might not be much to look at, but an Indian meal with lentils, greens, spiced rice or parathas, and maybe some chicken, is about the best thing there is.

The following is a loose recipe for making a pot of lentils. I often use red lentils, because they become nice and soupy when cooked, but you can apply the basic technique to any kind of lentil you have on hand (except for French lentils - they won't get soupy enough). I don't usually measure out my water, but rather cover the lentils by 1 1/2 inches or so. I check the pot often, and add water as needed. This dish is wonderfully forgiving, filling, and makes the perfect warm comfort food. Add a bit of spinach (frozen or fresh), and serve with brown rice for a simple vegetarian meal.

Indian Lentils

1 c. red lentils
~4 c. water, more or less as needed
a few big pinches turmeric
1 tbs. oil
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
plenty of salt and pepper, to taste
optional: minced serrano pepper, chopped tomato, fresh or frozen spinach, fresh cilantro

Directions:

Place lentils in a pot and fill with enough water to cover lentils by about 1 1/2 inches. Set pot over medium heat and add a few pinches of turmeric. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat, partially cover, and cook until lentils are soupy and soft, about 30min. Check pot often and add water to as necessary. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Once lentils are soft, heat oil in a separate skillet or frying pan. Once hot, add seeds and fry until fragrant and popping. Add diced onion, garlic, ginger, and hot pepper, if using, and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is soft and just beginning to brown. Pour all of onion mixture into the lentil pot, and stir to combine. Leave as is, or add spinach, tomatoes, and/or cilantro to pot, cooking just until warmed through. Serve with plain yogurt and rice or parathas.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

My Foodie Birthday

So today is my birthday, and like any good foodie, I've been celebrating with tastes of some delicious local treats. As I write this, I'm working my way through my second loaf of Acme cranberry-walnut bread in three days...let's hope I save a bit of room for my birthday dinner at Conduit tonight!

But let's start with our recent excursion to Sonoma and Napa. Jonathan and I drove to Sonoma on Friday night, just in time for dinner with a few others at El Dorado Kitchen, located in downtown Sonoma's El Dorado Inn. The ambiance of the place was classic laid-back, wine-soaked California, and we sat at a long communal table. The meal started out well, with some delicious wine and a petite jar of rosemary-roasted pistachios. Unfortunately, I wasn't as impressed with the real food.

My green salad with figs (I do love California figs) and marcona almonds was lovely, but my entree - a gazpacho with cucumber, avocado, clams, and prawns, was nothing special. The soup was nice, but the shellfish was average, at best. We also ordered two sides, some pan-roasted vegetables and a quinoa pilaf, neither of which was particularly appetizing. And our waiter, who seemed a bit too, um, "casual," for my tastes didn't help much.

Lunch the next day, though, was certainly special. We ate at Ubuntu, a yoga studio/vegetarian restaurant named in the New York Times as one of the world's "10 Best New Restaurants." I started with a vinyasa yoga class, where I got to do fun things like work on my scorpion, and then I met up with Jonathan and his mom and step-dad for a post-yoga lunch. The menu was overwhelmingly creative; we started with chickpea fries served with romesco sauce that were outstanding. I also had a "leaves and things" salad, which came with a sweet roasted pepper and a the mini-est apple-like specimen that I've ever seen. My entree, a sort of cauliflower served three ways, was also quite yummy and interesting. Jonathan's farro with carrot broth was delicious, too.

And today, walking around the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, Jonathan and I stepped into a tiny little truffle shop, where the owner makes all of his infused truffles by hand right in the store. We walked out one matcha and one earl grey truffle richer, and only $1.50 poorer. Yum.

I'll be sure to let you know how Conduit is; I'm anticipating yet another leisurely and delicious California meal, perhaps this time with a little birthday cheer (and cake?) thrown in.

Oh, and it's sunny today!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Still Cold, but Eating Well

Despite the dreary San Francisco weather (it is August, right?), I've been reminded once again why I love this city. It's the food, mostly. Last night we ate at a trendy little Italian/Californian restaurant, which, for San Francisco is just a typical spot. By any other city's standards, of course, it would be quite remarkable. My favorite dish was the arugula and nectarine salad that I ordered, which came with ricotta salata, green olives, and walnuts. Although the ricotta made it a bit on the salty side for my tastes, the arugula was perfect: spicy and zesty without being bitter.

[At Peet's]

Today, we made a trip to the Ferry Building, which is perhaps one of my favorite places, ever. No farmers market today, but we needed to get a gift (we're staying at a house in Sonoma tonight), and the Ferry Building is the perfect place for that sort of thing. We decided on a slim bottle of tangerine-infused olive oil, some olive oil-lemon verbena soap, a moscatel vinegar, and some ridiculously cool-looking and expensive dried pasta.


Naturally, we couldn't leave without getting a few gifts for ourselves: several free samples of Scharffen Berger chocolate, a jicama and grapefruit salad from the Slanted Door (the inspiration for this salad), and a loaf of the most wonderful bread I've ever tasted: whole-wheat cranberry walnut from Acme Bread. If only I could make bread that good...

[Yummy chocolates]
We are having dinner out tonight in Sonoma, and are going to Ubuntu tomorrow for lunch (and a yoga class for me!). I'll be sure to let you all know how it is. For now, I decided this might be a good opportunity to post a few homey recipes that are a) delicious and easy, b) staples of our daily dinner repertoire, and c) not exactly photogenic. I'll try to post some pictures from our travels even though we don't have our nice camera, and give you a peek into everyday eating at the Red Ramekin kitchen, too. I'll start with a quick favorite: tofu and veggies never disappoints!

[My favorite salad]

Miso-glazed Tofu and Crucifers with Nori Rice

1-2 boxes Mori-Nu tofu (or your favorite type of silken tofu)
1/2 head of green cabbage and/or a few stalks of broccoli
oil or cooking spray

For Miso Glaze:
2-3 tbs. miso
1 tbs. warm water
generous splash of rice vinegar
splash of soy sauce
grated ginger, to taste
~1 tsp. sugar or honey, or to taste
chili-garlic paste, to taste

For Rice (or substitute quinoa)
1 c. brown rice (or quinoa)
water, for cooking
1 sheet roasted nori
splash of rice vinegar
1 tsp. miso
toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Directions:

Mix miso glaze: Mix miso and warm water until miso reaches a sauce-like consistency. Add remaining ingredients, combine, and taste. Adjust flavors to your liking (add more sugar, vinegar, etc.). Chop cabbage and broccoli into small, bite-sized pieces, and chop tofu into 1-in. cubes. Heat a bit of oil in a wok, and, when hot, add vegetables. Stir-fry until beginning to brown, add some glaze and perhaps a splash of extra soy sauce, and then cover until slightly softened. Remove lid and add additional glaze to taste. Remove from pan, add a bit more oil, and then add cubed tofu. Let cook until beginning to brown, then add remaining glaze. Remove from heat. Meanwhile, prepare rice or quinoa in a rice-cooker: Add grains and water to rice-cooker, crumble the sheet of nori into the bowl, and cook as usual. When fully cooked, mix miso with a bit of vinegar to soften, and add to the rice. Add more vinegar to taste, and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Serve with tofu and vegetables.

[At Peet's]

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Greetings from Cold and Dreary California

You've probably noticed that posting has been a bit slow around Red Ramekin lately. A weekend in Vermont and now a 3-week stint in California/Hawaii haven't been helping much, either.

We arrived here in San Francisco yesterday morning, and I won't be back in Boston until August 24th. I really did mean to post a nice recipe on Monday (the day before departure) but I wasn't feeling well and certainly wasn't up to cooking, photographing, and blogging. Although I'm feeling great now, I unfortunately am without access to a kitchen, so the recipes and photographs will likely not be reappearing until the end of the month.

In the meantime, I hope to give you updates on my eating adventures here on the West Coast. Nothing too interesting to report yet, but in the next few days we are planning on eating at Ubuntu, an organic restaurant/yoga studio in Napa, Conduit, a nice restaurant in the city (for the event of my birthday!), and perhaps at another restaurant in Sonoma. So far, we've managed to get coffee and some snacks at an organic grocery, but haven't done much serious eating.

Speaking of which, does anybody have any good recommendations for places in or around San Francisco? And also, what's up with the weather here? It's August and 55 degrees...seriously, I'm freezing. It may be the season of stone fruits and berries, but I'm in the mood for a thick, hearty stew and some butternut squash at the moment.

Well in any case, I'm not complaining...I've been to northern California enough to know that the food here is routinely top-quality and generally worlds better than anything on the East Coast. I guess that makes up for the "summer" weather!