slow down, detour ahead

April 29, 2013 § 6 Comments

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My encounter with cancer almost two years ago changed me. An obvious statement perhaps, but I’m not talking about the remnants of treatment – scars and other body changes from surgery, the neuropathy (lack of feeling) in fingertips or toes from chemotherapy, more frequent forgetfulness and loss of words that I attribute to “chemo-brain” rather than aging, and the cloud of worry that slowly dissipates as time moves you further away from the milestone of NED (no evidence of disease), more commonly known as remission, but never known as cured. My “core” has changed too. I try to be more patient with myself and with others, more accepting and less judgmental, more joyful and less worried, forgiving and forgetting small injustices and inconveniences, appreciating life daily. As I gradually re-insert myself into the world of work, I’m less concerned with the size of the paycheck and benefit package, and more with the mission and ethics of the company I’ll keep and the amount of good we can do. And work needs to fit into the rest of my life, rather than the reverse which was how things were B.C. (before cancer).

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I flew into L.A. three weeks ago for a long weekend visit with my parents. Although I had only planned to stay a few days, my dad who’s nearing 90 ended up in the hospital the day after I arrived. He came home three days later, but the cause of the loss of consciousness that sent him off in an ambulance was still a mystery. It was time to check-in online for my flight back to Denver. But wintry weather and snowy conditions prompted Southwest to offer passengers the opportunity to re-book their flights up to two weeks later and waive any fare increase. I took the detour.

That extra two weeks ends soon; I fly back this Wednesday with another forecast of Front Range snow, but probably not enough to delay travelers this time. The time, as the popular refrain goes, was well spent. Dad’s back at home and gradually getting back to his old self and routines minus driving. He, mom and the whole family are much more aware of the need for better health and wellness self-care for both of them. We three sisters made calendar commitments to visit often for fun and just to see how they’re doing (and not just take the “We’re fine!” in a phone conversation at face value). Dad had several follow-up appointments after his hospital stay, so mom and I got to meet his medical team of “regular doctor, heart doctor and kidney doctor” as he calls them. And although our family dynamics can sometimes/often be annoying, irritating and downright messy, we almost seamlessly pulled together to make things better right away and for the future. Best of all, we re-connected, shared the love and had some fun too.

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I had some quiet time on my own strolling in a beautiful and funky Venice Beach neighborhood under a clear blue sky.

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Venice can also be charmingly retro and just plain bizarre.

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Of course I had to swing by Santa Monica and hang with the farmers market crowd. I lugged home three heavy bags of the most diverse load of produce I’ve ever bought at a farmers market. My haul represented what would normally be three seasons in Colorado and included

  • Winter – tangerines, grapefruits, a pomelo (of course these don’t even grow in my state), potatoes
  • Spring – mizuna, ruby streaks mustard, arugula, sugar snap peas, radishes, baby turnips, spring onions, spring garlic, strawberries
  • Summer – tomatoes, eggplant, baby zucchini, bell peppers, daikon radish, green beans, fennel

Although my mom no longer prepares elaborate meals for just the two of them, she instilled in me and my sisters the love of good food, well prepared and artfully presented. Here’s a few of the dinners and dishes we enjoyed together over the past several days with that cornucopia of vegetables.

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Sister and niece served a Chinese dish of bean threads and minced pork called “Ants in a Tree” with gently steamed green beans and rice one night. A salad of fennel, orange and slivered onion was a side dish for dinner on another.

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Mom made soba (not pictured) and shrimp tempura, while I prepared the vegetable dishes of blanched mizuna (cut and served cold with ponzu, a light citrus soy sauce) and seared Japanese eggplant drizzled with a miso-sesame sauce. Another night minced chicken in lettuce wraps repeated the Chinese theme of “ants”, small bits of seasoned meat.

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Tofu soup, radish tsukemono (quick salted pickles) and a chicken-egg-vegetable donburi (over rice) made a lovely and delicious meal. I found a frayed and well-splattered recipe in one of mom’s old cookbooks to make one of the best lemon meringue pies we’ve ever eaten!

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Memories refreshed, I happily return home.

is it Spring yet?

April 21, 2013 § 5 Comments

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If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been hibernating from late Fall into Winter into early Spring…

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The early bulbs and I thought it was safe to come out last month. They started to flower and I planted cool weather greens into the slowly warming raised vegetable bed. Whoops! An early April storm brought snow which normally isn’t a problem, but night time temperatures fell back to very low teens for a couple of nights. Oh, Dear! Believe it or not, the greens survived with just a little frostbite under their three layers of “floating row cover”, so we’ll have garden fresh salads soon I hope.

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No, I haven’t done a fast forward to late summer. I just hopped on a 2-hour flight to L.A. to see the folks! Back home in Colorado, hubby Phil and best furry friend Hana had to shovel out from another storm which brought a foot of snow! Hey, we need the water, so I won’t complain, but is it Spring yet?

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summer-to-winter and learning about tagines

October 26, 2012 § 12 Comments

Can you believe that these pictures were taken just one day apart? Los Angeles is still enjoying mild summer-like days. I took picture #1 Wednesday morning in my folks’ back yard; can you see the fat praying mantis hiding in the shade of the pulmeria blooms? Flew back home to Colorado and awoke on Thursday to picture #2, this snowy scene in our back yard; first real snow of the season! Unfortunately the early heavy wet snow can be hard on trees that haven’t shed their autumn leaves yet and can result in broken branches.

Lamb Tagine with Potatoes and Chickpeas

This was the back drop to making a chicken tagine for FFwD. Tagine refers to both the North African cooking vessel and the dish itself, usually an aromatic braise of vegetables and meat cooked stovetop. A contemporary example above is from Williams Sonoma. Even if you don’t own a tagine (which I don’t) you can make a perfectly good tagine with a pot that has a tight-fitting lid and that distributes heat evenly. My heavy Le Creuset pot made of enameled cast iron made a fine substitute. Although pricey, it is multi-purpose and I’m lucky enough to have an outlet store nearby in Lakewood, one of Denver’s suburbs.

Moroccan tagines traditionally use a spice mixture called ras el hanout which means “top of the shop” in Arabic, indicating the best quality spices in the blend. Dorie used a simpler approach of just a few spices along with a pinch of saffron in her Around my French Table recipe. Unfortunately I learned that there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to saffron. I used a big pinch of some lovely Spanish saffron for a half recipe which completely overwhelmed all the other spices with a somewhat medicinal flavor. Sigh…

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and comes from a fall-blooming purple crocus which I have tried to grow but with limited success. So what I use in cooking is a 1/2 ounce container of Spanish saffron. I just checked and saffron is around $100 for just 1/4 ounce now. Ouch! Since I didn’t have sweet potatoes handy for this recipe I substituted delicata winter squash from my winter CSA (community-supported agriculture) share.

Here’s the not-a-tagine pot I used for cooking. The chicken and onions are under the squash slices and prunes; the brown color is from cinnamon-sugar I sprinkled on the squash (it wasn’t very sweet yet).

We had cracked farro “polenta” along with the chicken tagine. My only make-up recipe this week were the  St.-Germain-des-Prés onion biscuits (March 2012) which were delightfully flakey, rich and savory.

stone soup ~ L.A. style

October 18, 2012 § 12 Comments

I flew into Los Angeles a few days ago to spend some time with my parents. When I arrived it felt like I had taken a short trip back in time from our coolish fall back to over-90 summer again, not exactly what I had in mind. But yesterday I awoke to a cool overcast morning and the clouds gave us enough shelter to make soup sound like a good idea for supper.

On Wednesday my sis and I had gone to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, one of my must visit stops on almost every trip to L.A. The Wednesday market is even bigger than Saturday’s, since that’s the day many Los Angeles chefs shop for fresh local ingredients. Australian finger caviar limes or fresh figs, anyone? We didn’t buy anything too crazy on this trip since my parents like pretty simple food.

Nearby there’s some good Japanese shopping and dining in West L.A. We found lunch at a Japanese food court inside of a Japanese market – a big bowl of shrimp and anago eel tempura over rice. It came garnished with a shishito pepper and a poached egg, both also tempura deep fried. It was messy and delicious! Living in Colorado, I do miss the breadth and depth of the L.A. food scene. Onto our own food scene in my parents’ kitchen last night…

Do you remember the story of Stone Soup? This is the edition I remember reading many times in my childhood. To me it’s the story of creating a delicious meal and community seemingly from nothing, and discovering the bounty of food and camaraderie that people once strangers can share.

We started with some gems from the farmers’ market, the last of the season’s corn and a small kabocha winter squash (Japanese pumpkin), two of my mom’s favorite vegetables and a perfect transition to fall. Most of the other vegetables were household pantry and refrigerator staples that provided the classic French base for stocks, soups and stews, mirepoix. This is just a fancy word for two parts onion and one part each of celery and carrot which I cut into a small dice to cook evenly and look pretty in the finished soup.

To get the most flavor from the ingredients, I grated the ginger, minced the garlic and added the corn cobs after cutting off the kernels which I set aside. There were a couple of small tired wrinkled tomatoes from the garden; I peeled, cored, crushed and then added them to the soup base too. A sprinkling of salt and I had a true stone soup approach to using everything available.

After adding water and a touch more salt and removing the corn cobs, I had a flavorful and aromatic broth that did not need the addition of chicken stock. In fact I think chicken stock would have masked the light flavor of the vegetables and background notes of the ginger. For the same reason, I omitted adding the herb sprigs of thyme and rosemary Dorie called for in her Around My French Table recipe. While the vegetable base had been cooking, I prepared the kabocha squash for it’s starring role by first removing the stem (either cut just underneath, or struck with the back of a heavy knife).

The hard part is splitting hard winter squashes open, so be patient, use a large heavy and sharp knife and watch those fingers! You can easily scoop out the seeds and pulp with a big spoon. I cut the squash into big wedges as they’ll break down into smaller pieces as they cook and get tender and soft.

Everyone into the jacuzzi! Another 10-15 minutes of gentle simmering and we have a be-ooo-ti-ful soup! Taste for flavor and seasoning.

I added a spoonful of white miso for some salt, sweet and umami. I had baked a loaf of sourdough for my dad before leaving Colorado, so that and butter were the only additions our soup dinner needed.

My version of spur-of-the-moment vegetable soup, aka stone soup a la SoCal Japan garnished with some cilantro and scallion.

And here are my make-up FFwD dishes from the last couple of weeks…

Last week’s crispy crackly apple almond tart was a big hit at our annual Oktoberfest pot luck, a perfect finish to the hearty celebration dinner of sauerbraten and red cabbage that our friend Paul has perfected over the years.

I contributed eggplant caviar (August 2011) prepared with end of the season eggplant and tomatoes to another potluck, this one at Cure Farm’s fall CSA pig roast party. The tiny glistening bits of vegetables coated with the olive oil and lemon juice did remind me of caviar, but I forgot to take a picture of the final dish, whoops!

Braised cardamom curry lamb (November 2011) made a warming meal for one of the below freezing nights we had at the beginning of October, a warning of winter’s approach.

Creamy cheesy garlicky rice with greens (September 2011) was an easy fun spin on classic risotto and let me use just picked kale from the garden and whatever rice and cheese was handy. We had a couple of weeks of good eats, just too busy to write about it!

Asanebo ~ a taste of Japan in L.A.

May 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s always tricky to find a “good” restaurant in a new city. I’ve lived in Colorado for almost 20 years after growing up in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. L.A. no longer feels like home, but it’s actually taken most of those years for me to adopt Boulder, Colorado. In part, because all of my family and now my two grownup kids live on the West coast, and in part because I really don’t like being cold in the winter. But I finally appreciate the quiet beauty of snow and the break winter provides for me from garden chores (which start to feel like chores by late fall).

Back to restaurants… I haven’t eaten raw fish sushi for a year or so, one of the foods I avoided while under treatment for cancer. Chemotherapy in particular degrades a patient’s immune system so that it’s difficult to fight any type of infection including food-borne illnesses. I also gave up raw milk, but couldn’t go so far as to cook my eggs until their yolks were firm (I feel safe about the farm eggs I get). So a couple of days ago I happily Googled “best Los Angeles sushi restaurants” to look for a treat for ourselves and my parents. I also checked with Siri on my iPhone and since we didn’t want to drive too far, decided on Asanebo in Studio City which is still in the valley. My dad translated “asanebo” as “asa” = morning, “ne” = “sleepy” and “bo” = guy, or morning sleepyhead. What a funny name for a restaurant! We learned from the waitstaff, that’s the nature of the chef owner who started Asanebo over 20 years ago.

We’re greeted by the sushi chefs behind the bar, “irashaimase” please come in! Although my husband and I usually sit at the sushi bar, we all wanted to sample Asanebo’s seasonal menu so we sit at a table instead. A waiter gives each of us “oshibori”, a small warm wet cloth for our hands. Initially we feel a little pestered by a series of different servers asking us what we’d like to drink. But once we decide and are served, we’re allowed to explore the menu. We settle into a nice rhythm of beautiful and delicious small plates, preceded by a small selection of very fresh and well-prepared sushi (that I forgot to photograph).

Can you read the restaurant’s name branded on the  side of the “tamago” (sweet and savory egg sushi)? The first small plate is lightly poached slices of scallop and asparagus in broth; the salty salmon roe complements their sweetness. Hmmm… I forgot to get a picture of the perfectly blanched and seasoned cold sugar snap peas.

Who would expect that a platter of fresh pickles could be such a hit with their seasonal beauty and variation in sweet-sour-salty crunchiness. Only eat the cubes of miso-marinated bamboo shoots and not the pretty garnishes!

Even the deep fried dishes taste delicate and light; the fast and hot cooking method highlights the main ingredient well. We shared sweet corn cut off the cob and gathered together by crisp tempura batter, along with a small bite presentation of tonkatsu-style Iberian pork with the traditional shaved cabbage and drizzle of salty and sweet sauce.

The shrimp and fish mousseline-filled squash blossom served warm with rings of sweet onion and yellow heirloom tomato was a bit of a misfire for me; the mousseline was overcooked to the consistency of a bouncy fishcake, but probably seemed proper to a traditional Japanese palate. The martini glass gave an elegant and elevated presentation for a concasséd and reassembled Japanese Momotaro tomato and chilled lightly dressed blue crab salad with shiso garnish.

Finales included asparagus wrapped with calamari, quickly tempura-fried then presented on dipping sauce and topped with grated watermelon radish. This dish was a sleeper; its appearance belied the contrasts in flavors and textures the seasonal fresh ingredients provided. Lastly we shared my parents’ favorite Japanese fish preparation, a very traditional miso-marinated grilled black cod. The red-tipped spike is a garnish of pickled ginger shoot.

This meal was a nice reminder of the great eating experiences we enjoyed in Japan three years ago. And although rich sweet desserts are not customarily part of a Japanese meal, somehow we managed to put away a crêpe filled with strawberries and vanilla ice cream at the end.

Nancy Silverton’s gone Italian

May 15, 2012 § 10 Comments

This is the original Nancy Silverton pecan sticky bun from the La Brea Bakery

As I mentioned this morning we’re in L.A. right now, catching up on family time. One of our favorite foodie places to visit is the original La Brea bakery Nancy Silverton opened in 1989, next door to her then husband’s restaurant Campanile. Occasionally on weekends I used to stand in an early morning line of customers that straggled down the block to buy what was probably the best bread in L.A. Chef Mark Peel still owns and runs the restaurant, but Silverton sold her interests in Campanile and La Brea. The news media reported she lost that nest egg in 2008 to Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme. But that girl (now approaching her 60’s) has energy, determination and a passion for all things pastry and bread that just won’t quit. She’s teamed up with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich (Lydia’s son) to form the Mozza restaurant group which includes a high-end Italian restaurant, pizzeria, to-go-and-delivery operation and an event venue. Tuesdays with Dorie’s sticky bun challenge was the catalyst for an afternoon’s drive through Hollywood to visit her old and new food stomping grounds–fun, delicious and expensive!

I feel like a tourist on our drive through Hollywood past the palm tree studded streets and hillsides. Must be a Marilyn Monroe look alike in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

I always shopped in the morning after making the long drive one day and the bakery had closed early because they sold out of bread! The loaves I got today looked beautiful, but were a little dry. Sigh…

Mozza2Go is only a few blocks away on our way back. Silverton’s focaccia has an open stretchy crumb and a generous dousing of olive oil pools in all the crevices. The bread is fragrant and salty, more about texture than flavor, beautiful and delicious. The antipasti and salads are very fresh and flavorful, making the perfect warm spring evening al fresco dinner. For dessert, we nibble on La Brea’s chocolate sour cherry bread and share Mozza’s butterscotch budino (Italian pudding), both signature Silverton creations. You can learn about Mozza Cookbook here and enjoy a few recipes from the book here.

apricot pecan cinna-buns

May 15, 2012 § 12 Comments

Published over 25 years ago, Baking with Julia is not shy about the butter. After all the cookbook is based on Julia Child’s PBS television series, and one of her famous lines is “If you are afraid of butter, use cream.” A young Nancy Silverton, known more for her artisanal sourdough breads than excessive use of butter, shows she can be right at home in Julia’s kitchen, with her brioche-based pecan sticky buns weighing in at over a pound of butter and 3/4 pound of sugar for a dozen or so buns. I reduced both ingredients by more than half, and we still enjoyed a rich and sweet breakfast treat. Although not as deliciously decadent as the originals, at least we lived to tell about it.

The recipe begins with an unusual method of proofing a sponge under half of its flour. When the flour “cracks”, you have a clear indicator that the sponge is ready to use. I’m in L.A. baking at sea level this month. My mom’s KitchenAid mixer is probably close to 50 years old, so I baby the old girl and skimp on the mixing time and keep the speed on low.

This is the softest stickiest brioche dough I’ve ever made (I only add 4 oz. instead of 6 oz. of very soft butter, but make it up with 1/4 cup of full fat yogurt). Since the sponge was really active, I decide to skip the room temperature rise and put it directly into the refrigerator for an overnight rise. It almost doubles overnight.

I decided to skip Nancy’s signature technique of laminating 6 more ounces of butter into the chilled dough. Instead I made a filling by beating 3 oz. of very soft butter with 2/3 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon and a generous pinch of salt.

I toast then chop 1 cup of pecans and chop 1/2 cup of California Bleinheim apricots. I line the bottom and sides of a 9×13-inch baking pan with parchment. Only when everything is ready do I take the dough out of the refrigerator. I’m going to roll out all of the dough instead of doing half at a time, so I need to work fast so it doesn’t warm up and get sticky. To save more time I also want to get the buns into the pan without having to re-chill the dough (think how late can I sleep and still have these in the morning).

The cinnamon butter sugar mixture doesn’t look like enough but easily covers the full batch of rolled out dough

Sprinkle your choice of goodies over the filling and then gently but quickly roll up towards the “naked” edge which will stick and hold everything inside. Brush off any excess flour with a pastry brush, and if the dough sticks to the board, free it with a knife or other metal edge.

It’s easiest to mark then cut the roll into halves, then quarters and then cut each quarter into 4 pieces. The ends are smaller, so I stuff them into the center of the pan, arranging the rest of the buns in a 3 x 5 pattern. In less than an hour, the buns have proofed to fill the pan and are ready to bake. (My lighting isn’t consistent, but yes, the dough was a beautiful golden yellow from the farm eggs I used.)

Since I’m using a bigger pan than the recipe specified, I reduce the baking temperature slightly to 325°F and bake until the tops are pretty evenly browned. This dough is so moist, tender and rich I don’t really miss the sticky topping, and using a buttery filling gives a similar effect to laminating, while saving a lot of time. The shortcuts also cut down on the messes and cleanup time, so I’ll probably stick to doing these cinna-buns instead of sticky buns. This is my new favorite brioche recipe though, and you can find links to the recipe, plus other bakers’ buns at Tuesdays with Dorie.

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