June 28, 2008

Swiss chard with shrimp and soba noodles

On a hot summer night it is always a good idea to find cooling foods that make you feel good and don't weight you down. This dish was a satisfying combination of hot and cool, spicy and satisfying.

We had gotten a good bunch of beautiful chard from the Barefoot farmer--our CSA farm share --as well as more green onions and elephant garlic than I knew what to do with. The produce has been amazing and we are really loving it, but sometimes there is a lot of one ingredient and it becomes a challenge to not let it go to waste.

So I bought some shrimp, peeled and deveined them and grilled them quickly in a grill pan on the stove. I sauteed some garlic and chili in olive oil first, then added the shrimp and a little surprise element that I think really elevated the dish from good to great. I made a little sun-dried tomato pesto with basil from my garden, parsley from the farmer, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, pine nuts and a few sun-dried tomatoes. It was a chunky pesto that I forsee using in many different ways: with some added pasta cooking water to thin it out over spaghetti; or spread on crostini for an antipasto; or, as in this case, tossed into my grilled shrimp for extra flavor.

Once the shrimp were done, I turned off the heat, then blanched the chard until just wilted, then added fresh minced garlic, a glug of olive oil and salt and set that aside. Then I cooked my soba noodles -- enough for two people--drained them and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, I had made a little green onion soy vinagrette earlier in the week to use up some of the copious amounts of green onions I had. This would make a great little dressing for my cold salad!

To finish, toss noodles and chard in bowl with about 1/2 c of dressing, place shrimp on top and garnish with fresh green onions and some fresh ginger and let those flavors go to work! They'll make you feel healthy and vibrant and cool off the body all at once. No wonder they eat this kind of thing in a sultry place like Thailand. It's not bad in the hot and humid South either.

June 24, 2008

Organic chicken with brown rice and peppers (I'm back!)

I feel like I've been on vacation. But not in a good way. Last night was my first time back in the kitchen in a loooooong time. My back injury is slowly healing and it felt great to be back at the stove! Although I have to say, my b.f. did a wonderful job of cooking and cleaning and taking care of me for over a week. He's the best.

So I cooked him an all-local, all organic dinner of chicken with brown rice and peppers last night. It was a hit --similar to a paella but without all the ingredients and healthier because of the brown rice. And such a cool feeling that almost every ingredient was from a nearby source.

The base of the dish was some expensive (but worth it) bone-in chicken breasts I had bought at the Wednesday Farmer's market at the Turnip Truck. The chicken (who I'm told ranged about like real chickens and ate a diet of grass instead of corn) came from West Wind farms, a 100% certified organic, grassfed meats and poultry farm in rural Tennessee. The only thing that wasn't local in the dish was the rice. The peppers came from our neighbors, the peas and herbs from our own little backyard garden, the garlic and the parsely from our CSA farm share, and the tomatoes were from a can (local Tenn. tomatoes are still not available --but soon!)

I browned the chicken first, then set it aside. Then I sauteed onions and garlic in olive oil, added the peppers, one bay leaf and some fresh oregano from my front porch herb garden. I cooked and softened them for a bit, then added the rice to toast and a carrot, chopped and 1/2 cup of white wine (or any other liquid like vinegar or broth to reduce). Add the chicken back in plus 3 cups of chicken broth, bring to a boil and then turn down the heat, cover and let simmer for at least 45 min. until the rice and chicken are cooked all the way through and most of the liquid absorbed.

This was an easy one-pot dish. And with all of those nice, fresh ingredients, tasted better than usual. I think we'll add this one to our regular line-up of weeknight meals. Speaking of regular, it will be nice to get back to my normal routine. I have alot of summer dishes I want to try and parties to throw! Not to mention a new look for my blog coming sometime this summer...

June 19, 2008

a good little recipe and a very bad back

I am laid up, laid out, down for the count with a really bad back spasm. So... needless to say I have not been cooking much, or doing much of anything really, and that has been the hardest part. But these things happen and when you're used to a very active lifestyle, it's hard to lay flat on your back for days.

On the other hand, I have been getting a lot of reading done. I am reading Heat, by Bill Buford; Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef; In Defense of Food by M. Pollan; The Best of the Barefoot Farmer; and trying to learn how to knit with Stitch and Bitch by Debbie Stoller. All of them are keeping me entertained.

But here is a little something that I made before I got sick. Nothing great, but I now think it's very easy to make your own salsa rather than buying the kind in a jar, which is never that good anyway. I love it when I make little discoveries like that. And to go along with it and the tortilla chips, our new summer favorite, up there with Campari-soda: The Gordon's cup.

For the tomatillo salsa I used a recipe found in A. Waters' The Art of Simple Food (seems to be my go-to cookbook these days). It was easy.

Peel a lb of tomatillos and cook them in boiling, salted water for 5-6 minutes until soft. In a processor or blender throw in 3 cloves of garlic, some other kinds of hot peppers like serrano or jalapeno, some salt, a cup of cilantro, and a bit of the cooking liquid from the tomatillos. Pulse that, then add the tomatillos and pulse again. It should be chunky and loose at the same time. The flavors meld and get better (and hotter) once it cools or after being refrigerated.

Gordon's Cup (this recipe is from bon appetit a while back and the inspiration to make it was from a recent Orangette post).

Take some limes, a few slices of peeled cucumber, 2 T simple syrup and muddle in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Then add about 1/2 c of your favorite gin (I've been using Juniper Organic Gin --really nice and clean tasting), some ice cubes and shake well. Strain over ice cubes and serve with fresh mint or a slice of lime. So good with chips and tomatillo salsa on a summer afternoon.

Hope to be back on track soon!

June 15, 2008

Rustic plum tart

What do you call plums cooked with a red wine (or port) and brown sugar syrup scattered over a simple rolled out pie dough and served with vanilla ice cream? A perfect summer dessert.

This was a breeze of a thing, thought up after seeing it in bon appetit recently. Plums have just made an appearance at the local market and I bought some hoping to do something like this with them (although I love plums eaten fresh on their own too).

I took it to a father's day dinner party and it was enjoyed by all. It's no 'knock your socks off' crazy dessert; just a simple and easy thing to whip up that tastes homemade and makes good use of a seasonal fruit. It could easily be done with peaches (also in season now) or cherries. Yum!

Rustic plum tart (adapted from bon appetit, june issue)

For the crust:

2 cups a.p. flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c + ice water
1 + 1/2 sticks of cold butter

For the filling:

about 6 ripe plums, seeded and quartered
1/2 c + 1 T brown sugar
1 T flour
a dash of maple syrup
2 c port or red wine

Make crust: put flour and salt in bowl and cut in butter with a pie cutter or a fork. Add cold water a little at a time and mix with fork until it comes together with small lumps of butter. Divide in half, make 2 discs and cover with plastic. chill for at least one hour.

Make filling: Boil wine or port, brown sugar, maple syrup until reduce to about 1/2 cup of syrup (10-15 min). Cut plums and put in bowl, sprinkle with flour and toss to coat. Drizzle syrup on them and let sit until crust has chilled.

Roll out crust on a parchment-lined baking sheet til about 10-11 in. in diameter. Put plums in the center and drizzle with remaining syrup, if any. Fold edges of dough over and brush with water. Sprikle edges and plums with brn. sugar and bake for about 40 min., until edges are golden brown.

Serve at room temp. with vanilla ice cream and lick your plate!

June 10, 2008

A cake for my honey

I did it again. I went ahead and made a cake. Officially, it is called a "banana-chocolate mousse cake with chocolate ganache" birthday cake for Daniel. Unofficially, it is called a bitch.

N.B.: There are almost 2 lbs of chocolate, in various forms, in this cake!

It is truly a delicious and beautiful cake and worth the effort. But it did take me all day.

I did it in stages because let's face it, who likes to be in the kitchen from morning til night? I will list each phase in the order in which I made it, with a few baker's tips thrown in for you. But, I cannot reprint the actual recipe as it could be a breach of trust between me and my pastry boss (we make this cake at work). And I really, really like him.


I used two 9-inch cake pans, one of them filled with twice as much batter as the other (I needed to end up with 3 layers and had only two pans). The recipe is for a German chocolate cake. It has 4 oz. of sweet, dark chocolate, melted. I used the bulk chocolate from Fresh Market. At work we use Callebaut, a very good Belgian chocolate, but this was a good enough substitue. It also calls for a cup of sour cream. I had made creme fraiche a few days earlier in preparation for this.

Then it's a pretty straightforward cake recipe: flour, sugar, butter, vanilla, eggs, baking soda. It comes out very moist and on the light side in color.


For this you need more of that good dark chocolate, melted. And, egg whites beaten til stiff. And, whipped heavy cream with powdered sugar (the p. sugar sweetens it but also makes it smoother). Add the melted chocolate to the egg whites and mix until incorporated. Fold the whipped cream in by hand last.

This alone could be a great little dessert, people. I could have stopped there. But this was a Birthday.


Remember my post about buttercream? Here it is again. That amazing and lovely thing that changes forms several times and is used as a smooth and even under-the-ganache frosting on this cake. To make it, refer to my earlier post, but it's basically egg whites, beaten until stiff with simple syrup that has been boiled and added while hot- slowly and carefully down the sides of your mixer to the whites, and then add soft butter in pats (and lots of it) and keep mixing at least 5 more minutes until it comes together beautifully, and looks shiny. You have to see it to believe it. I actually put it in the fridge and added the melted chocolate later.


These are what make this cake special. Take two bananas, cut them in half and slice them length-wise, then carmelize some sugar (boil it in water til it turns brown), then add a splash of cream to it, add your bananas and stir then turn off the heat. If you wait too long the caramel hardens and that's not what you want. You want a soft and gooey substance to coat the bananas.


Ganache, I am learning, is a very useful pastry ingredient. We use it to fill cookies, to decorate cakes and cupcakes, we pipe it, both white and dark chocolate, and I think it just takes this cake from good to professional. It is easy to make, but a little tricky to use. It has to be warm enough to pour, but not hot. And you have to work fast or it will harden on you and you'll have to start over. It's worth the extra care you have to take, I promise. Chop your chocolate, boil some heavy cream and add it to the chocolate in a wide bowl and whisk until smooth and no lumps. Then it's ready to either set up (if you want to pipe or fill with it) or use warm for coating.

A drying rack set over a half sheet pan with an edge is what I used. Set your *chilled* buttercream-smoothly frosted cake (important: if it's not chilled the ganache will make it lumpy; hint: a long off-set spatula here will make your life much easier) on the rack and pour the whole bowl of ganache over it making sure it drips down on all sides evenly. What's left in the sheet pan will harden and you can scrape it off and save.


Layer of cake+ choc. mousse + bananas, Repeat...Buttercream frosting, then chill.
Coat with ganache. Decorate.

Tip: putting the cake together--if you brush each layer with simple syrup it makes the cake stay moister longer, esp. since this one requires refrigeration.

Tip: (learned the hard way) don't go all the way to the edge with the mousse or use too much as it will ooze out the sides and be difficult to stop.

Tip: make sure the bananas are completely cooled or they'll melt your mousse.

Tip: see the tip about the off-set spatula.


I piped some extra ganache in little squiggly lines, and piped buttercream swooshes using a pastry tip. But at work we have the coolest tip called a "St. Honoré" which is more sophisticated and fancy-looking.

This cake was a huge hit. But I can't say I'll make it again unless I'm in a professional kitchen and feeling very confident. Whew. But in my kitchen? Not likely to happen again anytime soon. Happy Birthday, honey.

June 5, 2008

What's a CSA?

I am so excited about produce! We joined a CSA (Commuity Supported Agriculture) for the first time and this is our first week.

It means that every week we get to pick up a basket full of organic produce straight from the farm, and not just any farm. Jeff Poppen, a.k.a, the Barefoot Farmer, has been doing biodynamic farming on his Long Hungry Creek Farm, one of the oldest organic farms in Tennessee, for 3 decades and is considered a leader in the field (literally). (You really have to see him to believe him so click on the link).

It means he doesn't use fertilizers or pesticides and talks about his humus-rich soil and "friendly bugs" and what he can learn from them.

It means he gets to farm all year--in the most sustainable and beneficial way possible while operating an independent and economically viable farm because every CSA member pays a monthly fee from June to Dec. to receive his high-quality, organic veggies.

It means that we get to learn about what's in season in this part of the country when and experiment with all of the many ways to cook greens and beets, and anything else we get in our basket. (For a list of what we got, see side bar at right; I'll keep updating as we go along).

It means the idea "from farm to table" can be a reality: striaght out of the ground, bring it home, clean off the dirt and go to work preparing a fresh meal whose provenance is less than 100 miles from your door. No trucking, no freezing, no supermarket hassle. And so much cheaper!

And, most of all, it means we get to make things we've never made before: like garlic scape-cilantro pesto.

Garlic scapes are the curly green things that come up just before the garlic bulbs. They have a very intense flavor, very spicy and most farmer's just discard them. But they are really very cool. I just don't know of that many ways to prepare them. So a search led me to this recipe for a non-basil garlic pesto.

It was very tasty and not quite as strong as a typical pesto, but with a different sort of pepper finish. I used olive oil, about 3 garlic scapes, cut in 1/2-in. pieces, 1/4 c of cilantro, chopped, and 1/4 c of pine nuts (processed in the F.P.) and then stirred the freshly grated parm in by hand. It was a bit thick, so I added some lemon juice and a bit of the pasta cooking water to thin it out, salt and pepper to taste. Served with a salad of fresh mixed greens and ricotta salata, it was a very satisfying way to cook a meal.

PS: If anyone has any other ideas for garlic scapes, I'd love to hear them!

June 2, 2008

California Part 3: Chez Panisse, Berkeley

Next stop on the California culinary tour: Berkeley, home of one of my idols Alice Waters and her beautiful Arts and Crafts style restaurant Chez Panisse.

The reasons for wanting to go there were many: I had never, ever been but had heard about it for as long as could say the word 'organic'. I love Alice and her philosophy, and admire her participation and involvement in the Slow Food movement, the farm to school programs, and as a pioneer of eating seasonally and locally. This from her website:

"Alice and Chez Panisse have become convinced that the best-tasting food is organically grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound, by people who are taking care of the land for future generations. ...The quest for such ingredients has largely determined the restaurant's cuisine. Chez Panisse has tried for years to make diners here partake of the immediacy and excitement of vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea. In doing so, Chez Panisse has stitched together a patchwork of over sixty nearby suppliers, whose concerns, like the restaurant's, are environmental harmony and optimal flavor."

I also knew the place would be a perfect example of what it means to take food --ingredients on their own--seriously. I knew that many people go to train in her kitchen before going on to open their own kitchens across the country. And, lastly, I was interested in seeing what the place would look and feel like. Would it be pretentious? Serious? Fun? Laid back? New age? So many expectations were swirling around in my head.

You can barely see the building for all the foliage that surrounds it. There is a tree that famously juts up through the courtyard at the entrance to the restaurant, as if heralding the confluence of nature and food, of beauty and nourishment. I wasn't the only one taking pictures either-- of the restaurant or of my food. A young Japanese couple were doing the same at the table next to us and I wondered if they, too, had a blog. Or were they just big Alice fans like me?

My friend Silvia, who lives with her family in Berkeley --one of the reasons for my visit-- had taken me earlier that day to see the Edible Schoolyard, Waters' project in which children at a local middle school learn how to grow, harvest, and prepare their own seasonal produce.

It was a beautiful reminder of what can be done when people such as Alice who are passionate about their ideals apply that to the community in which they live, creating much more than just a restaurant. Just like Chez Panisse heralded a revolution in the food industry back in the early 70s, this project has given rise to others like it all over the country. It made me wonder if something like that couldn't happen in my neighborhood in Nashville.

[... Speaking of ideals, Silvia had also taken me that day to one of the coolest places on Earth: The Cheese Board on Shattuck Ave. It's a bakery, an impressive gourmet cheese shop and a pizzeria all in one. The place is run as a collective in which every member is an owner and there is no hierarchy; everyone makes the same wage, regardless of status or seniority.

Not only was it a place with tons of integrity and heart (hippies notwithstanding), but the bread and the pizza I tried were some of the best I've had anywhere. Only one type of pizza is made each day and it's so good and so well-known that the line forms and goes around the corner before 11:00 a.m. We got lucky and didn't have to wait and were treated to two slices fresh corn, onion, mozzarella, feta and cilantro-pesto pizza that blew my socks off. I hadn't had pizza that good in Italy!

But back to our much-awaited dinner. Silvia and her husband, Paul, were able to join me, having secured Silvia's father ("nonno" who was visiting from Italy) as babysitter for their two adorable children.

(aka the cutest family ever)

(We ate in the café upstairs but I peeked in at the restaurant downstairs and was blown away with how the kitchen literally sits inside the dining room so you can watch everything and there was an exciting buzz of diners, servers, cooks and food frenzy, all in a very controlled environment.

On the café menu that night were such amazing sounding things that I really had a very hard time deciding what to order. It's a good thing my friends are patient and know me by now and don't mind sharing bites with the crazy person taking photos and stuffing menus in her purse.

My starter was the Riverdog Farm asparagus salad with hazelnuts and prosciutto (I unfortunately could do nothing about the lighting)

and we also shared the Blue Heron Farm Little Gems lettuce with cream, garlic, and bottarga di muggine (grey mullet roe) that was dried and then grated over the salad. Delicious. I have to say, I was not a fan of the bottarga until then. It tasted like a salty hard cheese, but one that had a fishy essence. Just trust me.

And the asparagus was as wide as a cigar, no kidding. And as tasty as any I've had, except the one pulled out of the ground at Tana's farm.

For my main course, I had the Northern halibut with green beans, beets and aioli (again, so fresh and so REAL).

What I mean by this is that the vibe really was all about the ingredients. The presentation was as simple as can be. No squeeze bottle swirls or stacked food here. And no heavy sauces or huge portions. Just perfect.

Silvia had the Farro pasta with Soul Food Farm chicken and morel mushroom ragu. And Paul had the Grilled Laughing Stock pork leg with peas, carrots, fried shoestring potatoes and sage. (No, I did not take pictures of their food from across the table. I do have some scruples).

For dessert, we shared a Brooks cherry tart with vanilla bean ice cream.

When I say to you that this tart was as simple as a flaky thin almondy crust with tangy sweet cherries in their own syrup, I mean it. That's it. Yet it tasted like Nirvana. Nirvana å la mode.

This was the kind of meal that makes you actually feel lighter than you did before you ate it. The freshness and the simplicity, the quality of the ingredients and their expert, no-nonsense presentation was about the best way to experience "California cuisine" I know of. After dinner we walked back home where and talked and sipped "nocino" (a home-brewed digestif made from walnuts) that Silvia's friend in Italy had made. It was a wonderful ending to a very full and fun day in Berkeley.