Sunday dinner for four: Italian wedding soup

For the second weekend in a row, the four of us made meatballs.  Last week it was pork meatball banh mi, from this month's Bon Appetit, which in our hunger we totally forgot to document.  This week I made an Italian wedding soup adapted from both Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten's recipes.  I am not positive, but I'm pretty sure my version married the best of both worlds, pardon the pun.  I really liked how flavorful the meatballs were after browning in the oven - much better than they would have been just cooking in the soup directly.

The ingredients go something like this:

For the meatballs:
  • 1-1.25 lbs. ground meat (I used a mixture of 1/2 lb. ground pork, 1/2 lb raw hot Italian pork sausage, and about a 1/4 lb. chicken sausage, all casings removed).
  • 1/2 large onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/3 c. Italian flat-leaf parsley
  • 2/3 c. white bread crumbs
  • 1/2 c. grated parmesan (for best results, get a block of aged parmesan and process it yourself)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tsp salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Process onion, garlic, and parsley until minced.  Hand mix ground meat with grated parmesan cheese.  Add onion mixture, bread crumbs, egg, salt and pepper.  Combine well but don't overmix.  Line baking sheet with parchment paper and roll meatballs, about 1-1.5 in. in diameter (they don't have to be perfect).  Bake for 30 min. or until meatballs are nicely browned and cooked through.

For the soup:
  • 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 3/4 c. celery (about 2-3 stalks), chopped
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 10 c. low sodium chicken stock (preferably homemade)
  • 1 c. pressed barley (Ina Garten called for pasta but we thought this was healthier)
  • 3/4 - 1 lb. leafy vegetables (we used escarole and baby spinach)
  • 1-2 eggs, beaten
Cook onions and celery in olive oil over medium-low heat until translucent (do not brown), about 5-10 min.  Add chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Add barley and cook until ready (about 15-20 min depending on how "done" you like it).  Add veggies and cook until just barely wilted, about 1-2 mins.  Add beaten eggs into soup, the way you would make egg-drop soup.  Finally, add cooked meatballs and stir until flavors are blended.  Serve immediately.

Hearty, delicious, and perfect for cold weather!  And, it was surprisingly easy to make.  We also had a caprese salad (burrata, heirloom tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic, prosciutto) on the side and ollalieberry pie for dessert.

Foodie Tuesday: Cooking with egg whites, or, Don't let this happen to you.

Behold.  A double-decker pancake?  Mexican pastries?  Some kind of odd flatbread?  Oh no, friends.  What you see here is my first and miserably failed attempt at making angel food cake.  I only embarked on this strange journey because I happened to have 10 egg whites left over after I made my glorious homemade eggnog for Wendy's pre-Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday.

I used this recipe on allrecipes that got tons of great reviews, but with the caveat that you had to do things just right.  I am usually a cook who likes to "wing it," "play it by ear," or even "cut corners."  And the discipline of cobbling together an angel food cake just goes to show that in some cases, one must adhere to a very strict and deliberate process.  One that I did not quite follow tonight.  A list of my transgressions:

  • The recipe called for cake flour.  Not having any, I used mostly white flour with a tablespoon of cornstarch mixed in.
  • The recipe called for cream of tartar.  Not having any, I used 1 tsp. lemon juice as a substitute.
  • I forgot, and added the salt to the dry ingredients instead of the egg whites.
  • I forgot, and dumped all the sugar into the bowl in the beginning, instead of adding it to the already-whipped eggs.
  • I didn't have an angel food pan, or even a bundt pan, and used a regular 9'x13' pan instead.
  • I am not sure, but I probably overmixed.  Even though I folded as carefully as possible. (That link leads to an excellent tutorial on folding by Chef John Mitzewich, the same ingenious and hilarious guy who brought us 'How to Eat a Chicken Wing."  My favorite line?  "You're not folding yet, you're just like, "Hey, how're ya doing, batter?'"
At any rate, the cake collapsed miserably and I'm really not sure which of my sins had the greatest impact on its inability to stand upright.  I'm hoping some more experienced bakers (ahem...Reggie...Wendy) can tell me exactly how to avoid this sort of disaster going forward.

Foodie Tuesday, 1 day late: Blue Corn Pancakes

In keeping with my growing love for purple things, I thought it appropriate to share this discovery I made at Rainbow Produce about a month ago: blue cornmeal.  As soon as I saw it, my mind started racing, thinking of all the great things I could do with blue cornmeal.  Blue corn tamales. Blue cornbread and blue corn muffins.  Blue corn pizza dough!

But the first and most obvious thing to do with the cornmeal was this: blue corn pancakes.  Because they are AWESOME.
I adapted a couple different recipes that I found online (weeks ago... I can no longer find them because of the f-ing Google search algorithm change).  They are all more or less the same: varying portions of blue cornmeal, white flour, egg, melted butter, sugar, baking powder, salt.  I put it together and was mildly alarmed at how thin the batter was.  I had to keep whisking it so the ingredients would stay incorporated, and they made for some really flat, thin pancakes (you can even see holes through them, below).

But what I really love about these pancakes is that they are so versatile.  They have a hearty texture and nuanced flavor, and they can go either salty or sweet, opening up a world of possible accompaniments.  Here are some of my favorites:
  • Wildflower honey: the deep, nuanced flavor of really good honey plays beautifully against the rich nuttiness of the pancakes.
  • Avocados
  • Creme fraiche
  • Honey butter
  • Eggs
  • Any number of fruit preserves and jams
  • Smoked salmon
  • BACON!

Foodie Tuesday, 3 days late: Wouldn't you like to be a pepper, too?

I am quickly developing a penchant for purple and blue food items that are supposed to be another color.  What do I mean?  I'm thinking purple potatoes, purple cauliflower, purple carrots.  Besides being extraordinarily high in anti-oxidants (much like blueberries, the so-called "brain food"), I think they're more delicious than their conventionally colored counterparts.  They're nuttier, earthier, and generally richer in flavor.

Plus, I don't think I'll ever get tired of the novelty of eating something purple that is not grapes or eggplants.

So the other day I was wandering the produce section at Berkeley Bowl when I came across this strange thing next to the green, red, orange, and yellow bell peppers.  A purple pepper!  I'd never seen anything like it before.  Of course I grabbed one just so I could take it home, cut it up, see what's inside, and know what it tasted like.
And whaddya know, inside it wasn't purple at all, but white.  Maybe a tinge of green, but I was delighted to see the beautiful contrast of colors.  I turned to Google for some purple pepper recipes, but came up rather short.  Apparently it's a shame to cook the peppers because that kills the gorgeous color, and anyway purple peppers are actually the least ripe of all peppers and the least sweet (left on the vine, purple peppers will eventually turn green, then yellow/orange/red).

So I just sliced it up and stuck it in a salad.  Can't say it had a ton of flavor but it added a nice crispy texture.  I'll definitely be getting them again.

P.S. The title of this post refers to the old Dr. Pepper slogan, which I first heard in the movie Short Circuit (I know, I'm dating myself now).
P.P.S. Yes, I created a new tag called "Purple Things"!  Stay tuned for blue corn pancakes!

Mastering chowders

There are plenty of foods I have trouble denying myself.  A good chili.  Corned beef hash and eggs.  Fries dipped in ranch sauce (my east coast friends balk, but trust me, it's a match made in heaven).  Spam musubi.  Biscuits and gravy.  And, of course, clam chowder.

My love for chowder began early, even though it was usually out of a can.  Back then, I didn't know mashed potatoes could be made with real potatoes (hey, I thought they came out of Betty Crocker box, in freeze-dried flakes, such a sad childhood I had).  So it's no surprise that the first time I suspected that clam chowder could be made at home was well into my college years, when my uncle, who used to work in a restaurant, told my dad how to make it.

I never actually tried it myself, until now.

About a year ago, when I was still working at Google, I gave active feedback to the culinary team there, both positive and constructive, to the point that they knew me well by name, if not by face.  When one day they made clam chowder that blew my mind, I made sure they knew it.  It was just the right consistency - thickish and creamy, not chalky, with perfectly tender potatoes and juicy, flavorful bits of clam in every bite.

The sous chef at the time, Jef, was so pleased that he told me to swing by the kitchen one afternoon so he could show me how to make it.  I'd never been behind the scenes at a Google kitchen before (though if you work there, you can do culinary internships and all kinds of good stuff).  He already had a big pile of diced mirepoix simmering in about a pound of butter in an enormous stockpot.  He told me he'd cheated a bit and pre-roasted the yukon gold potatoes in the oven, but that if you really wanted to thicken the chowder naturally you'd let the potatoes cook together with the stock and let the starch do its work.
This time, I decided to make a smoked salmon chowder using the lessons I learned in the Google kitchen and loosely based on this recipe, and I already had some very nice Norwegian smoked salmon waiting to be used up in my freezer.  I also started with mirepoix, but used a lot less butter - just about 3 tablespoons or so.  Let it render down, then added an equal amount of flour to make the roux.  I then added water, and it was already starting to look like a chowder even though I hadn't added one lick of cream yet.  I added dill weed, several healthy sprinkles of smoked salt, pepper, and vegetables (frozen white corn and fresh asparagus).

I let the vegetables cook down to tenderness and then started to add the half-and-half, little by little (the Google chef had used just milk but I guess it didn't matter).  It really didn't need that much cream, and as soon as it reached my desired creaminess I threw in the salmon, which I had hand-flaked, along with the cheese.  Oh, and I forgot the garlic.

In the end, the chowder had a nice consistency but I felt it was just a tad too fishy.  It probably would have been better to use fresh, not frozen, smoked salmon.  Duly noted.

I made a yummy.

As in, yummy vegetables.  Amazing but true.  I once wrote a Foodie Tuesday article about one of the best ways to cook cauliflower.  Today wanted to incorporate some other veggies I'd picked up at Milk Pail yesterday, so I made a kind of westernized stir-fry.

Vegetables: white cauliflower (half a head), chayote squash, about 2/3 a leftover carrot.
Seasonings: Pepper, two springs of chopped up home-grown Italian parsley (that is the western part), and just the right amount of salt.  And some constarch dissolved in water to thicken the sauce (that's the eastern part).

I was kind of surprised by how few seasonings this required.  I had to stop myself from adding crushed garlic to the mix, and I'm glad I didn't.  I wanted to showcase the natural flavor of the veggies, each of which is so naturally, so delicately sweet on its own.  Together, they created harmony.  Garlic would have totally overpowered the dish.  Even Garry enjoyed it.  Lesson learned!
Edit - my process: I should mention that a lot of getting vegetables (or anything really) right is heat control and timing.  It takes practice and a certain "tuning in" to your food.  I learned from my mother that different vegetables cook at different rates, but I had to learn for myself exactly how that translates into a dish.  I've made many mistakes where one kind of veg would be overcooked and mushy, while another would be undercooked and too crunchy.  

In this case, I knew from previous experience that chayotes take a LONG time to simmer down, soften up, and sweeten.  So I added them first to a bit of oil over slightly higher than medium heat and let them warm up, covered, while I finished cutting the cauliflower into florets.  But cauliflower also takes quite a while also, so I put them in soon after, stirring the veggies so they got even heat distribution.  I peeled the carrot, then checked on the veggies.  They were starting to brown a bit so I added a few splashes of water and covered again so they could "steam-fry" and cook faster and more evenly.  I sliced the carrots, then lifted the lid and added them in.  At this point I also added the pepper and salt.  Covered it again and cleaned up my mess, then dissolved a mounded teaspoon or so of cornstarch in a couple tablespoons of water.  Chopped up my parsley.  Then when the vegetables looked done (the best way to tell is after they have fully turned color, then leave them in for a minute or two longer - if in doubt, try a little piece for tenderness), I threw in the cornstarch and parsley and stirred until the cornstarch thickened.  Voila.

First trip to Rainbow Grocery in the Mission - the Spoils

I have been weirdly "into" nonconventional grocery shopping lately.  I try to avoid chain supermarkets at all costs, and that includes hoity toity ones like Whole Foods and Draeger's.  Why bother, when there are so many better options in the Bay Area?  (Exception: Safeway is having a $1.99/lb sale on heirloom tomatoes until 9/15, which is a downright steal, and I am a big fan of Nob Hill Foods.)

So it was only a matter of time before I found myself exploring the canyon-like aisles of Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in the Mission, and the only reason was that I didn't get a chance to drop by Berkeley Bowl yesterday like I had wanted to.  
The first thing to greet me was the bulk spices section.  I had never seen anything like it!  Saffron, Chinese 5-spice powder and arrowroot powder by the pound!  I was so amazed...normally I get my bulk spices from Indian grocery stores (where they are SO much cheaper than going to Safeway or even the Mexican market!), but their selection is quite limited and they come prepackaged.  You can't, like I did, get a mere 1oz of dill weed and pay $0.50 for it.

I moved on to the regular bulk foods section where I was dizzy with pleasure - comparable to BB's, but there were quite a few things I saw that were NOT available at BB, like grits and blue cornmeal (they even had blue corn grits!).  

I grabbed some juice--on sale--a 100% organic berry fruit juice mix, then sampled some cumin-spice French black olives, and spooned some bulk pesto sauce into a plastic container (to note, it turned out to be about the same as TJ's prepackaged pesto).

When I came to the produce section though, I was thoroughly disappointed.  Firstly, they had nothing but organic produce.  I mean, often it makes sense to shell out the extra $$ for organic produce (peaches, for instance), but what the heck do I need to buy organic bananas for?  At $1.70/lb no less? It's not like I eat the peel!  (For a more complete list of which foods to buy organic and which you can get away with buying conventional, check out Wendy's blog here.)  Secondly, they seemed to have a much more limited selection of fruits/veggies available.  Like I couldn't find peaches anywhere.

I felt a bit better after I nabbed some excellent cookies in the snack section.  The full list below, clockwise from upper left:

Organic Bartlett pears (not bad at $1.60/lb), Bellweather Farms sheep's milk yogurt with natural fruit filling on the bottom (pricey at $2.29 each, but SO worth it - the most delicious, fresh-tasting yogurt I have ever had), bulk blue cornmeal, bulk cannellini beans, bulk grits, L&A mixed berry juice, organic mission and sierra figs, bulk fried veggie chips (expensive but yummy!), bulk traditional pesto sauce, bulk organic spelt rotini pasta, bulk regular rigatoni pasta, organic portabello mushrooms (SO NOT worth it at a whopping $9.99/lb!  Next time I'm going to Costco!), Pamela's ginger cookies with sliced almonds (so delicious, with the perfect amount of spicy kick, soft texture and pleasing crunch of almonds), bulk dill weed and bulk whole cumin seeds.

Foodie Tuesday: First attempt at Peruvian Saltado

Hey guys, sorry for the flood of food posts but I guess food's one of the few things that make sense in this mad, crazy world.

I probably ate this first at El Polla Inka in Anaheim sometime during high school.  It was pretty tasty, but it wasn't until I had it at Mario's Peruvian Seafood--on the eastside in LA, close to Larchmont Village/Hancock Park (it's technically Mid-Wilshire)--that I was blown away.  I went back for more, tried it multiple times in various combinations.  I decided the two best versions are lomo saltado (beef) and saltado mariscos (some mix of shellfish usually).

So what is a saltado exactly?  I understand it to be a stir-fry of sorts, made with your choice of meat (most traditionally beef, but also chicken, fish, shrimp), red onions, tomatoes, and french fries, served over rice.  The meat is marinated with a mixture of soy sauce and spices.  

Since moving to the Bay area I've had saltado at Mi Lindo Peru, on the border of the Mission district and Bernal Heights in SF.  Most of the saltados are solid, but the seafood saltado, with its delicate mix of shrimp and squid, is great.
It never occurred to me that I could re-create this dish at home, until I got some leftover home fries after eating out the other day and thought I could incorporate them into my own version of saltado.

I started with this very informative article on Chowhound, but made a few tweaks of my own. I was surprised the dish came out so well, but the key was to have a very hot carbon steel (or cast-iron) wok over a gas flame. It's imperative for getting the right caramelization and browning/crusting on everything. 
This is what I did:
  • I used frozen basa (sole) fillets which I sliced and marinated in some soy sauce with cumin powder, paprika and ground pepper.  I didn't have quite enough basa so I used some of the fancy smoked salmon I bought but didn't marinate that.
  • I went all-out and used Peruvian blue/purple potatoes for the fries.  Sliced them up to steak-fry size and deef-fried them in a heavy pan. Blue potatoes have a deliciously nutty flavor and richer texture than regular potatoes.
  • Roughly cubed two tomatoes off the vine along with half a red onion.  Threw the onions into a very hot wok with minced garlic and let it brown/char a bit, then cooked until it was only slightly wilty.  Added the tomatoes and stir-fried it for just a minute or two, just enough to "warm up" the tomatoes.
  • Lastly, wiped the wok off a bit and made sure it was super hot before throwing on the fish to brown.  Cooked on one side for 1 min. and the flipped, being careful to scrape each piece off the wok along with its delicious browned crust.  Cooked the other side until done.
  • Tossed everything together.  Served over brown rice (extra healthy!)
Warning: Make sure your kitchen is well ventilated!  The amount of steam/smoke you create while cooking this dish is unbelievable.

Affordable Luxury, Pt. 2: Everyone with a tiny kitchen ought to have a kitchen rack.

I have wanted a kitchen rack for a long long time.  I don't know why I considered it to be so prohibitive.  I guess I never had the motivation to get one until I moved into this tiny mouse-hole apartment with its tinier mouse-hole kitchen.  You don't know how depressed it makes me to have such a tiny kitchen, with all the cooking I do (and all the appliances that need storage space!).

Enter: the IKEA kitchen rack.  I got this baby for a mere $15 at my local IKEA, plus $2.99 per pack of 5 hooks (I got two packs).  And, it was pretty easy to install.  I needed exactly 4 screws plus 4 plastic wall anchors.  Oh, and a drill.  We drilled four holes, hammered in the anchors, and then screwed the rack to the wall.  The whole process took 10-15 minutes.

I can now enjoy my cookery-as-wall-art, I have this stuff out of the way, and I don't even have to store my cookware in the oven like I was doing before this went up.  I even hang some of my cooking utensils!

Affordable Luxury, Pt. 1: Life ain't bad so long as I can eat this well.

I came home late from work tonight, hungry.  So very hungry.  I wanted something simple, something that would not require a ton of prep or even thinking.  I literally rustled all the ingredients for this meal from my fridge/cupboard:

The Salad:

- Spring mix from Milk Pail Market
- Red-gold heirloom tomato (on its last legs) from Berkeley Bowl
- Real buffalo mozzarella (as in, made from buffalo milk) from Trader Joe's
- Home-grown basil leaves
- Handful of toasted pine nuts from TJ's
- Prosciutto from TJ's, torn into little bits
- Bits of red onion from Mollie Stone's
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Balsamic vinegar

In my humble opinion, one ought to keep a pack of prosciutto around at all times.  It is oh-so-delicious, adds flavor to anything (my favorite is wrapping it around avocado!), and a little goes a long way.  Also, everyone ought to grow a pot or two of their favorite herbs.

The Scramble:

- Shredded chicken from Safeway (I bought a whole chicken and boiled it last night to make stock to put in porridge because Garry was sick...again!)
- Sliced mushrooms from Milk Pail
- Red onion
- Crumbled gorgonzola cheese from TJ's (I store it in my freezer)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 eggs, of course, from TJ's

I dumped the scramble onto some leftover brown rice.  Such a small way to feel like you are livin' large.