Saturday, January 26, 2008

comfort food

It's been a busy, slightly stressful week around here and so I haven't had the kind of free time I'd like to have. Anyway, it seems like times like these, especially during weeks of constant rain (the literal kind) call for ultimate comfort food. One of my favorite recipes is "Penne al Forno". It comes from the days when I worked for HomeChef Cooking Store and School here in the city when they taught classes on basic cooking techniques. This recipe was covered in their sauce class- you go from a basic bechamel to a cream sauce to a mornay sauce and then stir it up with a few more ingredients to make this dish- basically macaroni and cheese all grown up! One tip, if you make just the sauce, it is great for eggs benedict. Mmmmm.... Next time I make it I will pop a picture in here- just to make you drool. If you feel the need to round out your meal you can add a big green salad.

Penne al Forno

1 ounce unsalted butter (2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1 cup creme fraiche (available at well-stocked grocery stores and cheese shops)
freshly grated nutmeg to taste (optional)
fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
2 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano, finely grated (about 1/2 cup)
2 ounces Swiss or French Gruyere, finely grated (about 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
8 ounces penne, cooked al dente
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 ounces Panko bread crumbs, about 1 cup (available at well-stocked grocery stores and Asian markets)

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook over low heat for 3 minutes or until the raw flour smell is gone and it begins to smell slightly nutty. Add the milk, whisking constantly, and continue whisking until the sauce comes to a boil. (Now is a good time to start your pasta). Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or until slightly thickened, stirring occasionally. It should be able to coat the back of a wooden spoon well- pull your finger through the back of the spoon and the line should stay clear and not run back to the center or drip. When the sauce is of desired consistency (there should be about 1 1/2 cups of sauce), add the nutmeg to taste.

Whisk in the creme fraiche and keep warm on the burner at low heat. Add the grated cheeses and mustard and stir until the cheese melts and the sauce is smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Drain your pasta, transfer to a large baking dish and toss with 1 tablespoon butter. Heat the remaining butter in a skillet and saute the onion until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Mix the onion, pepper, and cheese sauce with the penne. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and bake in a preheated 425 oven for 15 minutes or until the bread crumbs are lightly toasted. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Monday, January 21, 2008

weekend ramblings

We are hitting the end of a long weekend and while there are a few things I'd really like to write about, I want to do a little more planning first. Anyway, OTHER than those things which I will hopefully write about later in the week, I've found a some new things to be excited about. (Maybe I can say "things" a few more times. Things, things, things, things, things. Okay I think it's out of my system.)

I just began reading a book a couple days ago called, "What is the What?" by Dave Eggers and I wish I could find more time to throw myself into it. It is an autobiographical novel about Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from the Sudanese Civil War during the 80s. He is part of a group of children called the "Lost Boys of the Sudan" who were fleeing the south on foot for thousands of miles towards what they hoped was sanctuary in Ethiopia after their villages were burned and families murdered. Last January I read the article in National Geographic about the story of one of these boys (a different one from this novel, but still very similar experiences) and was intrigued. These are stories of the endurance of the human spirit. These boys watched as thousands of their peers were kidnapped, murdered, starved to death, taken by disease and eaten by lions. Their hardships go on for years. There was also a movie about the Lost Boys called "Got Grew Tired of Us" which I never saw but would like to. Anyway.... hopefully I can give my thoughts on the book in a week or so. I am only about 20 pages in so far but it is a good read- moving and unbelievable but with some humor thrown in!

Something I found out about today that I am excited for is the new U2 3D Imax movie! Apparently it is opening in a few cities in two days (but not here in San Francisco) and then many more places Feb 15. I was a big U2 fan in high school and this looks like a good time! Can't wait to see it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

yael naim new soul clip

I discovered this video on a friend of a friends' blog "Oh Happy Day" a couple of weeks ago and just loved it. Like she expressed- it made me smile! Thanks Jordan. I started searching for a place to find the album but itunes didn't have it yet and it was scheduled to be released stateside last week. It was finally posted on itunes when I checked yesterday. Yay! She has a really beautiful sound. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

blood oranges

I look forward to the beginning of January each year not because it is time to set new resolutions or because I get to clean my house after Christmas has blown through. I get excited because the first blood oranges arrive at the farmers' markets! Tuesday was my first visit since Christmas and I was so excited to see them at the stand I always buy them from. I bought 6 or 7 and could barely wait until I got home to eat my first one. They have very few seeds and are fairly easy to peel so eating them out of hand is a pleasure compared to few in the middle of winter.

The taste of a blood orange is so unique- definitely tangy but it also has a floral sweetness like that of a raspberry. When you cut out the individual sections for a salad or dessert they look like rich ruby jewels waiting to be consumed by a hungry suitor. One of my favorite ways to eat them is in a salad. My lettuce of choice is arugula because I like the peppery flavor which offsets the sweetness of fruit very well. Also good choices are red leaf lettuce or butter lettuce but you can really use whatever you prefer. Cut the sections out of the orange by first slicing the ends off and then cutting the peel and pith off with a sharp knife, following the curve of the fruit. You are left with a red orb separted by the white membranes appearing as thin stripes in between the flesh of the fruit. Holding the orange over a bowl, use your knife to cut close to the membrane on each side of the section. The section will fall into the bowl. Continue with the rest of the orange and then squeeze the membranes to release the rest of the juices. You can use sections like these in many dishes- in a wild rice salad, on cheesecake, in a fruit salad... experiment. The leftover juice can be used in the vinaigrette or mixed with a little mineral water for a nice drink. I put these sections in the salad along with some thin slices of red onion, and toasted pistachios or hazelnuts. You can also add other citrus like ruby red grapefruit or navel oranges, maybe even kumquats. I make a dressing from a light tasting vinegar (Trader Joes makes a great Orange Muscat Champagne Vinegar that I can almost use drink and is great on a salad even by itself) and a citrus olive oil (I use Stonehouse Blood Orange Olive Oil) but let your taste be your guide. A hazelnut oil would be great too. Another option for this salad instead of nuts would be some sliced avocado- also currently in season. Enjoy!

Arugula Salad with Blood Oranges, Onions and Hazelnuts
(feeds one hungry soul or 2-3 as a side dish)

3 oz baby arugula (half of a bag)
2 blood oranges, sectioned (see above for directions)
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 oz. toasted, coarsley chopped hazelnuts
2 tablespoons orange muscat champagne vinegar or rice vinegar
2 tablespoons citrus olive oil or nut oil
1/4- 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste

Whisk vinegar and mustard together in a small bowl. Slowly add oil while still whisking and add salt and pepper to taste. In a medium bowl toss together arugula, orange sections, onion slices and hazelnuts. Add about 3/4 of the dressing and toss gently- I like to use my hands. Add more dressing if needed. Serve!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

golden bits of heaven

Last weekend I made gingerbread caramels. Yes, you read correctly. Gingerbread Caramels. I know you have probably never had one before. They are quite tasty. Back in November I bought the December Martha Stewart Living and just sat drooling over the gingerbread article but I have found that the general success rate exactly recreating anything from that magazine is 50/50. I finally got around to trying these and they were so good I have dreams of the other varieties I might try... maybe some with cardamom or just fleur de sel... The texture was just perfect, not to firm or too runny. They didn't stick to the parchment, just gently came loose as I unrolled yet another one "test". The gingerbread spices? Such a good match for the caramel.

I would recommend, however, to take your time sifting them over the caramel as you stir because I just dumped them in at once and they clumped together (which I didn't discover until I poured them into the sheet pan). I had to carefully stir them in the sheet pan to distribute the spices throughout. At first I was hesitant to share the recipe because I think these must become a new Christmas tradition, but then realized that since you could find them online if you just did a quick search I'd better make it a little easier on you. So here you go, friends! My first official recipe on the blog. Enjoy!

Gingerbread Caramels

Makes about 12 1/2 dozen

Vegetable-oil cooking spray
4 cups (2 pints) heavy cream
2 cups light corn syrup
4 cups granulated sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup unsulfured molasses
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves


Coat an 18-by-13-inch rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray. Line with parchment, leaving a 2-inch overhang on short sides. Coat parchment.

Bring cream, corn syrup, sugar, butter, and molasses to a boil in a large pot over high heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Clip a candy thermometer to side of pan, and continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until mixture reaches 248 degrees (firm-ball stage), about 20 minutes.

Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla, salt, and spices. Immediately pour onto prepared sheet, without scraping pot. Let stand, uncovered, at room temperature for 24 hours without moving.

Coat a large cutting board generously with cooking spray. Pull up parchment to unmold caramel, and invert onto the cutting board. Remove parchment. Cut into 1-by-1 1/4-inch pieces. Wrap each in cellophane or waxed paper. Caramels can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 month.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Dan Tyminski

Last night we went with some of our friends to see Dan Tyminski live at the Independent. Fairly recently I have begun to fall in love with bluegrass! One of our friends is quite the banjo player and has been introducing me to some great music. Over the summer we went to see Allison Krauss and her band Union Street Station at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. I have liked AK for quite some time but only had one of her albums. Going to that concert sort of revived my interest in it and I have since purchased a couple more of her albums and just love listening to the sound. It is so different from my background of a more classical nature. Anyway, Dan Tymnski plays mandolin and guitar for her band and has his own band as well. Many of you may have heard him as George Clooney's singing voice in the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?" (great movie if you haven't seen it). They were fabulous and so extremely talented. Bluegrass isn't just for hillbillies- I swear! Try it- you'll like it!

So here it is

After over a year of sitting on this blog I am finally going to begin posting. Every couple of months I will go back and mess around with the template, change some colors and then put it aside for another moment when I think I will be inspired. I have been stuck on wanting to make the look of it best represent ME. Well, enough is enough. It is time to start writing! I was walking around Lake Merced this afternoon thinking about all the things I want to write about, things I want to share, blogs I have recently been inspired by, and the thought that this has got to be one of my resolutions this year! So, here goes! Hope you enjoy and find a little joie de vivre for yourself.