26 February, 2010
Well, Miss Queen of Italian cooking and Italian pronunciations Show-Off, I will admit it: you were right. Last night I attempted some homemade gnocchi and saw that it was very easy to make. No complicated ingredients, no complicated techniques, this is definitely a rustic and authentic meal to enjoy at home or wow your friends with.
I had reviewed a few recipes with variations on the ingredients and methods, but realized it basically came down to a few essential ingredients and the rest was was a matter of kinda winging it. I can't imagine an Italian 'mama' in her humble kitchen in some small farm town near Bologna taking out measuring cups and painstakingly exacting her ingredients. So I improvised the way she would. Here's how it all came together beautifully for me:
2 lbs. russet potatoes (about 2 large potatoes and 1 smaller one)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 egg yolks, beaten
pinch of salt
First start by boiling the potatoes in a pot until you can pierce them with a fork easily. Don't overcook them though, as this will make your dough no good. If they are overcooked, they absorb too much water which messes up the chemistry with your flour. So keep an eye on them, boiling them for approximately 25 to 30 minutes. Strain them and let them cool for a few minutes. I placed them near my kitchen window to cool down, as you will need to handle them with your hands while they are still warm. Once they've cooled down just about enough to work with the skin, peel the skin off of each potato (the potatoes should still be warm to kind of hot here and there, so be careful not to burn yourself). If you have a potato ricer or food mill, process the potatoes through it. I don't have either (don't worry, it's next on the list of kitchen utensils), just work the potatoes work your hands, breaking them down while keeping them fluffy. Don't smash them - just break them up until you create a meal of out them (like a coarse dough). Do not put them through the food processor - this will turn your potatoes into glue, and they will be too heavy for light fluffy gnocchi.
Once you've created a dough-like meal,add the flour, egg yolks and salt. I added a couple pinches of kosher salt. Delicately mix it all together and work it into a ball of dough with your hands, taking care not to overwork it too much. Move your dough onto a floured surface and take handfuls at a time to work down. Roll the dough into a long log approximately 3/4 of an inch wide. Don't press the dough down, again remembering to work it delicately, but rather roll it outwards to help stretch the dough thinner. After you have a 3/4 inch wide roll, cut it into 1-inch pieces.
I suggest working your entire dough into pieces at this time, as you can separate your gnocchi pieces and freeze those you won't be cooking that day. Just lay them out on a cookie sheet, spaced out so that they aren't touching each other. Place the cookie sheet in the freezer for three to four hours, after which the gnocchi pieces should be frozen enough to remove them from the cookie sheet and place them into a freezer bag.
Boil another pot of salted water, and drop your gnocchi pieces in separately a few at a time. You will know when they are ready because they will rise to the top of the water, ready for you to scoop them out. And PRESTO! Homemade Gnocchi!!
Gnocchi is best with a tomato sauce or even a simple homemade pesto sauce. Again, channeling the improvisational spirit of an Italian homecook, I threw some ingredients together for my own pesto. Here's the basic recipe:
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 bunch Italian parsley
1 bunch fresh basil (same size as the bunch of parsley)
3/4 cup fresh grated parmesan cheese
1-1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste
ground pepper to taste
Combine the garlic, walnuts and pine nuts into a food processor and process for about 30 seconds. Wash and chop the stems off of the parsley and basil. Add the parsley, basil and parmesan cheese to the food processor bowl. Using the spout of the food processor, slowly pour the olive oil into the bowl while pureeing the ingredients. Add the oil until you get a creamy texture; after you are satisfied with the liquidity of the puree, you can stop adding oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and continuing pureeing.
Again, for the most part, these measurements are to taste. You can't really go wrong with adding more basil or parsley for those who like more basil or parsley flavor. Or if you like a nuttier flavor, add more walnuts or pine nuts. And if you want a slightly more decadent pesto, add a splash of heavy cream for a Creamy Pesto!!
So I concede - all those Saturday morning Giada At Home shows where I balked at Giada's supposed "easy" recipes, won't intimidate me anymore. Now if only I could somehow presto-chango my own kitchen into Giada's, I'd be her biggest fan ever.
20 February, 2010
Recently open auditions were held in the 3rd Street Farmers Market Sur La Table store for a new upcoming Gordon Ramsay produced series called "Master Chef." Ex-pats are familiar with the original BBC program which has been on-air for years in the U.K., New Zealand and Australia. Needless to say, for any and all amateur chefs and foodies in and around the L.A. area, this casting call was a huge and exciting event, and brought every aspiring chef to the outlining Farmers Market sidewalk to stand in line for hours on a warm Sunday morning in January.
Oh yes, I was one of those aspiring and passionate foodie chef-wannabes who woke up early to cook a tasty unique dish for some strangers that I was going to have to impress in a matter of minutes. The alarm went off at 6:30 and I sprang out of bed and started preparing one of my favorite and very personal dishes: Pollo Guisado (pronounced 'poh-yoh ghee-saw-doh'). Growing up eating Mexican and Puerto Rican food on a regular basis thanks to my heritage, this dish is the epitome of simple homecooking. A staple in Puerto Rican and latin cooking, it's easy to make and has flavor for miles.
3-4 chicken legs
3-4 chicken thighs
4 cups chicken broth (appx. 2 1/2 cans of chicken broth)
4 medium potatoes, cut into 2-3 inch pieces
1/4 cup Spanish green olives
6 dry bay leaves
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. white pepper
2 Tb. olive oil
4 Tb. Sofrito (click to see recipe)
2 small cans tomato sauce
salt to taste
In a large stock pot, heat the chicken broth over medium heat, and add the chicken, potatoes and green olives to the simmering stock. Add bay leaves, cumin and white pepper. In a separate small pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add sofrito and stir continuously for 2-3 minutes, opening the flavors of the sofrito. Add the tomato sauce to the sofrito and continue to heat for another 3 minutes, blending the sofrito and tomato sauce. Remove the sofrito and tomato sauce from the heat, and pour the mixture into the stock pot of simmering chicken. Stir to make sure the tomato sauce has melded with the broth. Add salt to taste if needed. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 35-40 minutes.
The stewed chicken is traditionally served over white steamed rice.
This audition Sunday, my Pollo Guisado came out absolutely delicious. I packed up my little secret weapon dish, which I was sure would knock the socks off the judges. But unfortunately, I was wrong. What I didn't know was that because of the volume of people auditioning, the churn-n-burn process wasn't going to let me talk up the judges very much. Instead, after standing in line for over two hours, and finally getting my number 139 place called, my audition lasted a total of 3 1/2 minutes.
Using the training kitchen in Sur La Table, the producers quickly shuttled in five or six people at once as five or six previous auditioners finished and walked out. I was told to plate my dish and raise my hand as soon as I was ready to present, and one judge would taste and another would be a casting director who would meet and greet me. What I did not give enough thought to was the fact that, even though I had AIR TIGHTLY packed my hot chicken dish in a Coleman cooler and was confident the multiple layers of foil and towels would keep all of my hot food hot and bacteria-free, the judges may not feel the same way. After plating my neat little entree, I raised my hand and couldn't get any of the judges' attention for about a minute. I patiently waited, while the auditioner set up next to me was getting chatted up a storm. Looking like a bad Guy Fieri imitator, this unemployed tattooed Long Beach 'bro' had caught the judges' eyes. And I just stood there with my dish, waiting anxiously for someone to come and chat me up like Oprah. I cringed when I overheard them ask Mr. LBC what mirapoix is, which he did not know. I came close to leaning over and screaming like an excited first grader, "I KNOW! I KNOW!!" but I resisted.
After what felt like an eternity, one of the judges tepidly approached my station, and asked me how I cooked it. I began to explain the steps and ingredients, while the judge took a microscopic bite of food. I understood why, of course, the judges could only eat minuscule tastes, considering the line of possibly 800 people and plates of food throughout the day of auditions. After sharing my recipe, I knew I was going to have to really show my crazy personality, and I was ready... except that the judge who tasted my food merely thanked me and walked away. I waited for the second judge/casting director to come by, and I spotted a handsome Hollywood type who was walking towards my station. I quickly smiled and got ready to let my personality shine. The chiseled casting director smiled and asked, "Has someone tasted your food already?" I eagerly responded "Yep!" And just like that, he ended my audition with, "Okay great, thank you for coming!!" and walked off. Just like that, my one opportunity to be on an exciting cooking show and share my passion with Gordo and the world fleeted right past me.
A bit deflated, I packed up my dish and went home. It was on my way home that I realized that the judges were probably TERRIFIED of trying my chicken dish! They had no idea how much effort I put into keeping the dish hot. I could have been their worst nightmare: room-temperature and bacteria-laden chicken. Of course, I knew that my chicken was still hot and definitely safe to eat. But needless to say, next time I audition for a cooking show with a prepared dish, I won't be making chicken.
I will, however, be excited to see who ends up on the new show. And if Mr. LBC is one of the contestants, I can at least say I auditioned next to the Fieri-sham once.
Many people have heard of "sofrito," a latin flavor base used in various dishes the same way the French use mirapoix and the Italians use "soffritto" (yep - pronounced the same in Spanish and Italian). I've had many requests for my family recipe, and so without further ado:
2 bunches cilantro
2 green bell peppers
2 brown onions
1 garlic head
4-5 empty glass jars w/lids (approximately the size of small jelly jars)
After washing the cilantro and chopping off stems, place into a large food processor or blender, and puree. Clean out the seeds from the bell peppers and quarter the onions, adding both to the puree. Peel one entire garlic head and add to the puree, blending until all four ingredients are liquified. Pour the sofrito into the jars and freeze all but one, which will stay refrigerated. It will be a vibrant green color (just like Kryptonite!) and smell like rich flavor in a jar - which is exactly what it is. The frozen sofrito will keep in your freezer for up to a year, and the refrigerated jar will last up to two months.
To incorporate sofrito into our dish, fry between 3-4 tablespoons (depending on the size of your dish) into about 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil. This will open up the flavors of the sofrito. Then add 1 to 2 small cans of tomato sauce to the fried sofrito and blend over medium heat. Now your sofrito is ready to be added to your dish. It works best in tomato based or stew dishes such as Pollo Guisado, beans or chili.
Prepare to watch your dining guests fall to the power of the sofrito. May the force be with you! Oh wait, now I'm confusing futuristic space movies...
05 February, 2010
Every year, football fans across the country scrutinize and analyze and hypothesize the results of the big game for two weeks prior to the kickoff. But the most important analyzing and hypothesizing for most people is: what are we eating during the big game??
Here are a few traditional and relatively easy sports grub ideas I've put together and will be serving at my own Super Bowl party this year. And please feel free to share your ideas as well!!!
1) Turkey Chili: this can be made in large amounts for relatively inexpensive costs, and with a somewhat healthy twist. The turkey meat is lower in fat and the beans and veggies are great sources of iron and nutrients. Just go easy on the sour cream and cheese!!
2) Fancy-Pants Truffle Mac-N-Cheese: Scroll down to find the recipe for this decadent dish. Add a little bacon, pancetta or mushrooms for your own twist. This is guaranteed to NOT have leftovers...
3) Homemade Buffalo Wings: There are TONS of recipes for making hot wings, depending on your style. Here's a recipe for broiled wings that won't leave them as greasy or heart-clogging as your favorite sports bar's, and will definitely satisfy your craving for the spicy messy treat. For a spicier version, add more cayenne pepper. To calm the spice a bit, add Worcestershire sauce or a little bit of brown sugar. And remember, all of these ingredients are to taste - don't worry too much about the measurements. And lastly, before you season the mixture with spice (cayenne and/or hot sauce), split your sauce mixture for a mild and hot version. Then add your cayenne pepper and/or hot sauce.
Check out your local grocery store deli or specialty store deli (in L.A., there's Gelson's, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Bristol Farms with various options) for some great dips to go along with chips or crackers, and slice up some fresh cold cut meats for a great appetizer and snack as well. And of course, don't forget to wash it all down...
What recipes are you cookin up for the big game? Share the inspiration!!!
Go New Indianaporleans!!
04 February, 2010
I used to think the stereotype about the French having invented and/or perfected everything was completely false. But this idea is somewhat true in a few respects:
1) The Age of Enlightenment began in Europe, and many argue it began in France, so they helped invent part of our Western society's body of political and economic philosophy.
2) They have perfected champagne.
3) They perfected Thomas Keller's French cooking style (well, one Frenchman specifically, Roland Henin), as evidenced by his new outpost, Bouchon, in Beverly Hills.
Set in one of the most intimidating culinary areas in the city, literally across the street from Mastro's Steakhouse and around the corner from Spago, Bouchon is definitely surrounded by some big fish in the pond. But little did I know that it would prove to be quite the Grouper and hold its own.
It's very easy to miss the restaurant's entrance, as it is towards the rear of the Beverly Hills Garden building it calls home. Just keep an eye out for a valet booth, and he will be sure to direct you to the entrance, like he graciously did with me. I passed the small downstairs Bouchon bar, which immediately made my heart go pitter-patter. 'Obviously too small to be the restaurant,' I thought, like a Pavlov dog, I involuntarily began salivating, giddy about what was to come.
Upon entering the restaurant, you may feel as though you have the wrong address, but you don't. The concierge will greet you and show you up a large staircase to the real entrance of the bar and restaurant. And once you arrive, you will feel like you've gone returned to visit home with warm and welcoming friends and family. That is, if "home" for you is a two story 17,000 square foot modern mansion. Don't fret - this will be home for the night.
A long hallway leads you to another small bar at the edge of the dining room, and a view of the fresh oyster bar will not-so-subtly hint for you to order a few as a starter. I was seated and joined my girlfriend, and like a kid in a candy store, I couldn't help gawking. Here I was, just an everyday food geek, who sadly has not (YET) had the pleasure of experiencing Napa's culinary treasure chest or the restaurant where the legendary Chef Keller made his name and stamped the world with his fame for French cuisine. I had a piece of Yountville here in my own backyard. I wanted to cry tears of joy.
The menu was a charming folded piece of paper wrapped around the napkin and utensils. I quickly ran my eyes all over, catching sparkling shining words everywhere, like "Paté de Campagne" and "Oeufs du" dis' and dat, and of course, my personal favorite, "Confit de Canard." All French words meaning the same thing: DELICIOUSNESS. Synonyms, if you will.
My girlfriend F and I dove right in, making demands from the menu to our waiter with probably the most atrocious French pronunciations ever, but we didn't care. He wasn't French, so nobody was judging. We started with the Poireaux en Vinaigrette et Oeufs Mimosa, a leek salad topped with light as air whipped eggs. They seemed to have been 'deviled' first, and their creamy texture went perfectly with the mild leeks. Of course, having been tempted by them early in the evening, we washed down the salad with some fresh oysters. I could have stopped there, and gone home happy with the few awesome and memorable Keller courses, but why would I do such a thing?
Our next plate was the Paté de Campagne, a classic dish that can be incredible in the right hands, or terribly wrong in the wrong hands... We were confident that the paté was definitely in the right hands here. And it was. Buttery and nutty, it was light and giving, ready at the whim of your knife on the crispy toast. We were definitely down 'le' trou lapin Francoise!!!'
Next came our main courses, mine the Plat de Côtes de Boeuf (red wine braised short ribs), served over a bed of lightly sauteed cabbage, crunchy parsnips and sweet carrots. The beef was so tender, I cut through it with my fork alone. The sweet glaze and tangy red wine flavor slowed my bites so as to savor the dish as much as possible. My homemade slow cooked braised short ribs have never come out like this... I guess that's why this is Thomas Keller's Bouchon, and not The Moonlighting Fooditor's Bouchon.
My friend F ordered the Thon Confit à la Niçoise, or Tuna Confit over fingerling potatoes, bibb lettuce and topped with a hard boiled egg (that's where the Niçoise comes into play). As delicious as it was beautiful in presentation, this dish was a harmonious combination of the sweet and delicate flavors of the fresh seared tuna, the buttery and smooth texture of the seasonal potatoes and the earthiness of the egg. It definitely beat that Niçoise salad you had for lunch in your office building's first floor deli...
ALMOST, but not quite, too full to fit in dessert, we were easily swayed to complete our experience with a sweet ending. I opted for the Hazelnut Pot de Crème, while my friend chose the fresh Mango Sorbet. The dish of smooth hazelnut cream instantly brought memories of Europe and the decadent Nutella-filled desserts you normally only allow yourself to have while on vacation. I made the exception this night, and didn't regret it one bit. The hazelnut custard was accompanied by two of the butteriest and best butter cookies I have ever had, and I couldn't help but think, "I'll never look at another butter cookie tin tray the same..." F's fresh mango sorbet was as fresh and sweet and smooth as a Caribbean mango picked right off the tree and flash frozen. We never wanted the dinner to end. And then, it didn't.
On my way into the dining room, I made a comment to the maître d’ about the length of the hallway compared to the rest of the bistro. She explained that the restaurant is made up with 60% kitchen and 40% dining room. I immediately asked her if they allow tours of the kitchen, to which she replied yes, and suggested I ask my waiter about a tour. Having forgotten to ask the waiter about the tour, the maître d’ remembered on my behalf, and as my friend and I were preparing to leave, our waiter reminded me of my question and said the hostess could take us to see the kitchen. It was a small dream come true.
As we entered the kitchen, I noticed it was relatively quiet, and we subtly stood and watched the militaristic organization of the Bouchon kitchen. The chef du cuisine worked closely with all of the sous chefs, while the line cooks quickly moved around the space, prepping and assisting various people. We immediately noticed a large flat screen television on the opposite wall with a small camera above it. I asked the hostess what the television was for, and she explained it showed Keller's other restaurant kitchens simultaneously (Per Se in NY, Bouchon in Yountville, and Bouchon in Las Vegas). I was fascinated and inspired, and just like that, Thomas Keller left his mark on my culinary storybook forever.
And I didn't have to drive to Napa to experience it. Thanks, Mr. Keller. And welcome to L.A.