December 08, 2016

My Parisian Kitchen: French Onion Soup

Chase Away  the Winter Chills--and The Vampires, Too

It's a grey, rainy and cold winter day--alright, so it's really 55 degrees outside, but this is California and it really is raining, which by my accounting makes for a cold day.

It's almost noon and I've spent the morning drinking coffee and writing and I have no intentions of changing out of my pajamas until early afternoon and then, only to put on party clothes and head out for a holiday dinner. There doesn't seem to be much of a point in eating a regular lunch and since I've already breakfasted on a few slivers of brie and wild blueberry jam, I've been channeling my inner Parisian spirit all morning, so why not roll with it?

When most people think about French food, they think of those elaborate buttery pastries or fancy dishes, but pick up any French cookbook and thumb through the recipes and you'll quickly realize that it's a fairly simple cuisine that makes use of what's in season.

One of my favorite winter meals is a big bowl of French onion soup covered with shredded Comtè or Gruyère cheese and put under the broiler until melted, then served with a hunk of bread, a glass of wine, and maybe a cold sliced pear for dessert. The best part of making French onion soup is that it's prepped and on the stove in less than 15 minutes and can simmer away, unattended, while you practice intriguing French phrases or lie about on the sofa listening to the rain fall.

December 07, 2016

And Now, A Little Dessert: Crème Brûlèe

Ah, That First Crack and Then...Pure Heaven!

Not surprisingly, I'm not much of a baker, although I do try, especially during the holiday season. Now don't get me wrong--I'm fine with whipping up a quick cake, a few hand pies, even a simple, but insanely rich cheesecake, but beyond that, I find baking a tedious chore. This, I am sure, is because it is such an exact science dependent on careful measurement and my natural inclination is to pinch, dab, and dash my way through a recipe.

What I do like in a dessert is simplicity--the fewest ingredients for the biggest bang. I don't like my desserts too sweet, though I will admit that when given a piece of cake, my sole objective is the frosting, but, that's an exception hardwired in my DNA and cultivated throughout a childhood where my mother always passed off the icing bowl to me so that I could lick it clean. My usual approach is to cut the sugar by half in most dessert recipes, a trick that allows the subtle nuance of the other ingredients to tickle the palate and besides, dessert should compliment the meal, rounding out the experience and allowing the meal to stay alive in my memory, if even only for a short while.

I want a dessert that still has me licking my lips and savoring the memory, hours after I've left the table and I've found few that have that power. One of my favorite by far is Crème Brûlèe. The rich vanilla custard is best with less sugar, especially since the top is sprinkled with coarse sugar and run under the broiler until caramelized and nearly burnt. Even better--get one of those miniature blow torches and fire it up table side and enjoy the laughter and squeals as your guests marvel at your culinary expertise.

December 06, 2016

A Big Beautiful Butt

Pork Done Right: Crispy, Flavorful, and Tender to the Bone

If I asked Mr. B what he wanted for dinner, his suspiciously too quick response is always pork. Restating the question does no good either, for even if I say, "So, besides pork, what sounds good to you?" he'll say something along the lines of "How about pig? Does pig sound good to you?" His expertise in crafting a flawless circular reasoning logical fallacy is superb and after a few minutes of what can only be described as futile discussion, I'm only too happy to cook pork.

Realistically though, there are only so many directions one pig can take a woman. You have the loin and the chops; ground pork is too greasy on its own and pork ribs are decidedly summer food, and while I don't mean to throw any shade at my Southern family and friends, there is more to life than BBQ.

This got me thinking about the possibilities of cooking one large pork butt and using it as the basis of an assortment of meals, sandwiches, and snacks--hello quesadillas! Figuring out how to cook it low and slow, to get a crispy and succulent exterior and meat so tender it could melt in your mouth took a little thinking, a short prayer, and a trial run. In the end, I found a magic recipe that can go in just about any direction and if you keep things simple at the outset, this is one versatile pig!

December 05, 2016

The Easiest, Cheesiest, Best Au Gratin Potatoes. Ever!

My Take on a Classic Winter Dish

Is there any vegetable more synonymous with winter than the humble potato? I think not! This simple tuber can go from plain to fancy with minimal fuss, from deeply satisfying to unbelievably indulgent with a handful of ingredients. Perhaps it's my peasant roots (no pun intended), but I've long had a love affair with the potato and there isn't an end in sight.

In recent years the potato has been wrongfully accused of bringing a host of unwelcome health maladies to those who partake, everything from kicking on the switch in the brain for increased sugar cravings to obesity, but I know better. In the 1970s, my grandmother worked for the United States of Agricultural at The Potato Board--the government entity that took on a public relations campaign for the tuber. Along with a handful of colorful recipe booklets, my grandmother came to the table with a wealth of nutritional information and an order to 'eat those potato skins' that nearly shocked us all.

When I set about creating my take on the classic Au Gratin, I had little to work with. It was Sunday and I was too cold and lazy to head to the store, so I had to make do with a nearly empty cheese drawer, very little milk, and only a smattering of butter. But, ingenuity is the mother of invention, so while there were obstacles, there were no impossibilities. The resulting dish was savory and satisfying, well-worth an addition to my winter rotation, and in hindsight, one of the most versatile recipes I've ever come across. Best of all, it paired perfectly with a glass of wine and an evening spent on the sofa, still clad in my pajamas.

December 01, 2016

A Walk on the Wild Side

Foraging and Making Homemade Bitters

*Originally published in Edible San Luis Obispo, Harvest 2016

Even when I’m only out for a quick stroll in the neighborhood, I can’t resist the lure of any botanical within reach. Tempted by the honeysuckle bush around the corner, the wild fennel in the vacant lot, or the seemingly endless march of spikey lavender plants as I ascend the final hill, I always return home with a pocketful of souvenirs. My instinct to pluck doesn’t stop there; I cannot roast a chicken without at least one trip through the yard, snipping rosemary and thyme, grabbing handfuls of the chamomile growing wild under the roses, the last of the green beans, a bouquet of fennel fronds and, if no one is home, a few apples or persimmons pilfered from the neighbor’s tree.

We’ve long since evolved from our foraging ancestors who wandered the woodlands and forests scouring the landscape for edibles—roots and leaves, an unattended egg, a cluster of mushrooms—but we’re still hardwired to hunt and gather. A visit to the neighborhood grocery offers quick proof as people drift along the produce aisles, instinctually ferreting through the stacks of fruits and vegetables, casting about for the perfect specimens to throw into their baskets. We have a natural predisposition to uproot, burrow, and explore our environment, while extracting its treasures.

In recent years, foraging has gained mainstream momentum and while many advocates have taken to the great outdoors in pursuit of dinner, an even greater number have hit the trail in search of herbs, roots, bark, fruit, and flowers for a more noble purpose—to elevate cocktail hour.

November 30, 2016

Braised Chicken Thighs with Pumpkin, Soy, and Ginger

A Belly Warming Braise for a Cold Night

I may have over 300 cookbooks in my collection, but it often seems that I make the same rotation of dishes over and over again. Such is life, right?--we always seem to revert to our comfort zone whether in the kitchen or the world. I've been slowly working to change this by doing more than just reading all of those cookbooks and while I'm pleased to say that I've been successful in expanding my repertoire, I must admit that I can't follow a recipe to save my life. Is this the trait of any cook? I'd like to think that cooks, in general, are forever tinkering, adding, changing, and adapting recipes to suit their own tastes. Equal parts instinct and creativity, perhaps.

Anyhow, now that the nightly temperatures are starting to dance in the low 30's and my mid-century floor furnace is groaning and coming back to life, I don't seem to want to cook anything that isn't braised low and slow, saucy, fragrant and bone-warming. You know, the perfect supper to ladle into a big bowl, top with a handful of freshly chopped herbs and then savor while sitting on the sofa wrapped in a warm blanket with a glass of wine within easy reach.

I'm not sure how to categorize this recipe. I discovered it in one of my cookbooks, A Change of Appetite, by Diana Henry. The idea of braising meaty chicken thighs and chunks of pumpkin in a savory and complex sauce was compelling enough, but since I had just harvested the last pumpkin from my garden and had spent several days wondering when and how to cook it, coming across the recipe seemed a fortuitous coincidence that shouldn't be ignored. Besides, the recipe was an apt foundation for creative and delicious departure, a tantalizing proposition for any home cook.

November 29, 2016

Sweet Potato Pumpkin Pie with Brown Sugar Oat Crumble

Pie for the Indecisive

At some point during the holidays, someone has to take charge of the ensuing chaos in the refrigerator and if the result is pie, so much the better. Such was the story of my life when I opened the refrigerator days after the Thanksgiving feast and--no kidding--needed a search party to find the cream for my coffee. That's when I sized up the seemingly endless containers of leftovers and decided to make pie.

Thankfully, I'm not one to top the regulatory sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, but only a scattering of toasted pecans. This year, just days before the feast, I experimented with a recipe for sugar-brined roasted pumpkin, but things didn't turn out as planned and when I took mine from the oven it looked nothing like that picture accompanying the recipe. Once cooled, I tossed the roasted pumpkin into a container and decided that it would make a great addition to the roasted sweet potatoes slated for mashing. Thus, this mashed sweet potato and pumpkin became the basis of my pie.

After a quick swirl in the food processor, I added in a cup of whole milk, since I had none of the evaporated called for in any of the recipes I consulted, along with a few tablespoons of sugar, several large pinches of cinnamon, a grating of nutmeg, and two eggs. Once mixed and poured into a pie shell, it looked like nothing more than a squash puree, though delectable, leaving me unsure of the final result. Once baked, it seemed passable, especially if dolloped with large quantities of whipped cream and eaten with the lights off while watching a late night movie, but to me, even under such circumstances, it seemed naked. It didn't take long for me to decide on a crumble topping, a long time favorite of mine and one that tempts me to pick away at crisps and coffee cakes to no end. 

Turns out it was sheer accidental genius and while the recipe for this pie was created from a need to make shelf space, this one is a keeper and will be a day after tradition in this house for years to come.