Sunday, January 29, 2012

Flamenco, and a Taste of Spain

Duet of Gazpachos

The plot was simple:   invite seven of my best friends over for an afternoon of Flamenco music and a Taste of Spain.  What followed was reminiscent of an all-female version of the Algonquin Round Table.  Intelligent, interesting, witty women with a passion for food, wine, the arts and men conversing over a leisurely six course lunch.   

The cast of characters included my favorite doctor, a fashion editor, a fashion consultant, a documentary producer, the liaison to the likes of Roger Federer & Rafa Nadal at the BNP Paribas Open here in Indian Wells, and three fanatical foodies of indeterminate occupation.  It was a diverse and animated group of women capable of producing high decibel banter.  These women know I am capable of excess when it comes to food and wine.  So like proverbial girl scouts, they came well prepared for the  expected Bacchanalia—each wore an outfit with an elastic waistband.

The setting was originally to be poolside given the weather forecast of a balmy, but hardly wintery, 80 degrees.  But a high wind warning made me cautious for in similar conditions the previous weekend our patio furniture vacationed at the bottom of our pool.  Because we intensely decorate for Christmas, years ago we agreed to keep the holiday decorations up at least through Chinese New Year.  So the lunch was held amidst Santa’s of all ilk, Department 56 villages, and Mark Roberts fairies, elves and monkeys.  It made for a rather festive setting and I revised the theme to “Flamenco music and a Taste of Spain at Christmas.”

The Menu

First Course
Pane with Tomato & Serrano Ham

Second Course
Paired with La Cana Albarino 2010

Third Course
Paired with La Cana Albarino 2010

Fourth Course
Seafood Fideua or Fideuada – Catalonia and Valencia
Paired with Alto Moncayo Varaton 2009 Garnacha & Montebuena Rioja Cosecha 2009

Fifth Course
Campo de Montalban, Zamorano, La Serena Cheese Sampler with Marcona Almonds and Migos Figs

Sixth Course
Paired with whatever wine remained

To my sous chef’s constant chagrin, I tend to over serve and underestimate the time for preparing a meal.  Event preparations started on Friday, and we did what we could.  But many of the dishes needed to be freshly prepared to be at their best, so there was much work left on Saturday morning.  Ellen, my good friend and fellow foodie, arrived bright and early to assist in preparations.  My sous chef, who is a very busy attorney at this time of year, was not intending to help further.  But when he stopped in to see how Ellen and I were doing, he grabbed a knife and, like an attorney, started barking orders and calling out the time remaining.  At this point it felt like a Top Chef competition, but the buzzer would have sounded and I would have been eliminated for not completing my dishes without their help.  With only moments to spare, I was ready to greet my guests with a Manzanita cocktail and a platter of Pane with Tomato & Serrano Ham.

Manzanita Cocktail

The cocktail is inspired by a drink I had at Julian Serrano’s Tapas Restaurant in Las Vegas.  The unique flavor of the Hendricks’s Gin (cucumber and rose), when combined with the green apple puree and Lillet, creates  a perfect balance of tartness, savory herb, sweetness and floral notes.  It is very refreshing  cocktail and a great way to start the festivities.

Pane with Tomato & Serrano Ham

A couple bites in and rave reviews

My guests raved about the  Pane with Tomato & Serrano Ham.  It is simplicity personified.  Crisp, toasted bread (I used sourdough) is rubbed with a garlic clove and tomato.  This infuses the bread with the essence of garlic and tomato but does not make it soggy.  Serrano ham is thinly shaved and placed in ribbons on top of the bread.  Manchego cheese curls garnish the finished tapas.  The ladies each ate one and one-half servings, so there were no leftovers or even crumbs on the plates.

Next up was the Duet of Gazpachos.  The first was Tichi’s Gazpacho and it has been a tried and true favorite in our home ever since we first had it at Jose Andres’ restaurant, The Bazaar, in Los Angeles.  Jose claims his wife Tichi captured his heart with this Gazpacho recipe.  I am still waiting for my sous chef’s proposal, but I have had many requests for the recipe.  Ingredients are the key to great food and I think it particularly important to use a suitable product when preparing a regional recipe.  To achieve the correct balance and flavors of Spain, use Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Spanish Sherry Vinegar. 

The second gazpacho was another Jose Andres dish, Ajo Blanco Malagueno, and it is the yang to Tichi’s Gazpacho’s yin.  The flavor profile is completely different as it consists of almonds and garlic with a garnishment of grapes.  Since the texture and flavor are more on the sweet side (since the heat of the garlic was dissipated by blanching),  it was served in a shooter glass, milkshake style.  This sweetness offset the tanginess of Tichi’s Gazpacho making them an irresistible pairing. 

Rivera Inspired Cabbage Salad

Rivera Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles has been a favorite of mine since it opened, and anyone who has gone there on my recommendation has not been disappointed.  I knew I was walking a tight rope with my next dish as I didn’t exactly have a recipe for it and some of my guests may have tried this at Rivera.  Not to worry, however.  My ravenous ladies consumed all of the Rivera-Inspired Cabbage Salad. Whew!  This salad is a flavorful combination of julienned red cabbage, chopped green apples, crumbled Cabrales cheese and crispy lardons with a simple dressing of Spanish Sherry Vinegar and Spanish Olive Oil.  The crunchy red cabbage, tart apples and the saltiness of the lardons when combined with the strong, spicy flavor of the Cabrales cheese creates a burst of flavors in your mouth that keep going and going.  It’s kind of like a German symphony, only shorter and more enjoyable.

I know that it is risky to try new recipes when entertaining, but I cannot help myself and the Fourth Course is an example.  I have wanted to try many of the recipes in Claudia Roden’s book “The Food of Spain” and felt that today’s Round Table was  a sufficiently adventurous group of foodies to comprise the perfect venue.  I have made paella several times in the past, so the method was familiar.  Valencia Paella includes rabbit, which is a meat that I order frequently but had not prepared previously.  It is a very lean meat with little fat.  This paella also includes chicken thighs, lima beans, saffron, tomatoes  and snails.  Ellen and I followed Claudia Roden’s recipe to the letter, with no improvisation as we home cooks normally do.  The flavors were good, the paella rice was cooked perfectly, and no one balked at the inclusion of snails and rabbit.  However, we each felt it needed a little more pizzazz.  There is a strong Mexican influence in Southern California cooking, so maybe our taste buds simply were calling for a little spice through the addition of chorizo or pepper.  Or maybe we don’t yet fully recognize and appreciate the sophistication of Spanish cooking?  One other note about this dish, after browning the chicken and rabbit it looked like a grease bomb had exploded in the kitchen – probably why they best paellas are made over an open flame in the great outdoors.

Seafood Fideo
Valencia Paella & Seafood Fideo 
It’s not a frequent occurrence when women take seconds, even if they are starving.  Something about women suffering through hunger pangs in order to promote the perception of dietary moderation.  But in a most unladylike fashion the group plowed through first and second helpings of the Seafood Fideua like Sherman through Georgia, making it the clear winner of the paella cook-off.  This paella is a combination of fideo (short pasta noodles found usually in the Hispanic food section) and a panoply of seafood, including calamari, scallops and shrimp.  The recipe called for monkfish, the “poor man’s lobster,” but I could not find it locally and substituted langoustines instead of the much more costly lobster.  The fideo noodles are cooked in a simple tomato and garlic sauce to which I added some of the broth from the Paella Valencia.  This married the two dishes nicely and gave the fideo sauce a richness that you won’t get from chicken stock alone. 

Spanish Cheeses with Wine - what could be better?
Sated and grateful for elastic waistbands, the ladies needed a respite to get their second wind.  Cheese course time!  Cheese is not normally used as a palate cleanser, but I felt it would be the perfect transition from the Fourth Course as the cheeses matched well with the three wines and had enough character to clear the taste buds.  Zamorano is a sheep’s milk cheese that has nutty characteristics and gets its dark color from being rubbed in olive oil while being aged for six months.  La Serena Cheese – the most pungent of the group-- is made from sheep’s milk that has been curdled using the coagulant found in the pistil of the artichoke, and has a slightly bitter and salty taste.  This is not for the lighthearted, but is a great cheese when paired with an appropriate glass of wine.  Campo de Montalban was mistakenly thought of as Manchego cheese up until 1985.  It has a similar taste and texture, but is unique as it consists of cow, goat and sheep’s milk.

After nearly four hours of dining, it was time for the finale, a duo of desserts.  Arnadi de Calabaza is a traditional dessert that is served at Easter in the region of Valencia.  It has very complex flavors that graduate from the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash) and almonds to a finish of lemon with a hint of cinnamon.  It was incredible and there was only one piece left at the end of the day.  Crème de Manzana, or apple cream, was the second dessert.  It was a match made in heaven for the slight tartness of the apples offset the sweetness found in the other dish.  Plus it was creamy and elegant to boot.  These desserts were consumed with gusto and the plates were left clean as a whistle, always a good sign that a dish was a success.  Ellen and I each thought that the Crème de Manzana would be a terrific base for a rice pudding.  And while the Arnadi de Calabaza may not be our typical Easter fare, I can see this dish as an alternative to pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving!

Five and one-half hours, six bottles of wine and six courses later it was siesta time. 
Not to brag, but my seven guests said their “number one pick in the desert for dining” was my house.  Aren’t they a polite group?  Flamenco, A Taste of Spain at Christmas was officially a success.

Throwing an ambitious luncheon for eight is a team effort.  My sous chef and financier did the shopping, paid for the ingredients, and assisted me in the kitchen.  He was not particularly happy about having to visit five markets to obtain the necessary ingredients and assuage my desire for Spanish inspired table linens and decorations.  (Note to everyone – it is probably easier to find these amenities closer to Cinco de Mayo.)  Ellen  assisted greatly in the entire cooking process – it’s not often that you find friends who are willing to be a co-hostess with you.  Judy supplied a terrific Albarino for our first two courses for which I am most grateful.  And equally important to a great party are the guests.  I don’t have many shrinking violets for friends, so lively conversation is always in store and adds to the dynamic of a successful party.  I’m thankful to have such a great sous chef and friends in my life. 

Wonder who will get the last serving - Sous Chef or Me????

Musical Accompaniment:

To cook by:  

Zucchero - Zucchero & Company available on iTunes $9.99

For Dining:

Spanish Dinner Party Music – available on iTunes for $9.99
Flamenco Guitar – Carlos Montoya – available on iTunes for $24.95

To clean up:

Zac Brown Band - You Get What You Give - available on iTunes for $10.95

Friday, January 27, 2012

Broth Braised Potatoes

Vincent Van Gogh - Still Life with Potatoes

Potato fields have long been a favorite subject of artists and cooks.  Russian impressionist painters frequently used potato fields in juxtaposition of airplanes, antennas and other modern conveniences as political statement.  French Impressionists, Van Gogh in particular, painted landscapes featuring potato fields in an attempt to capture the beauty of everyday life.  The lowly root vegetable has played an important part not only in art history but also culinary history.  The culinary world has baked, mashed, fried, sautéed, scalloped, gratin, braised, boiled and roasted potatoes in numerous ways and combinations.

William Merritt Chase Potato Patch

Jules Bastien-LePage - Potato Gatherer

Vincent Van Gogh - Potato Eaters

Dorie Greenspan’s Broth Braised Potatoes are deserving of a place of honor at the dinner table the next time you are including potatoes in your meal.  The method is simple, and the result is pleasantly surprising.  The texture of the potato ends up fork tender and does not dissolve upon touch from the braising.  The infusion of fresh herbs (rosemary, bay leave and thyme), and chicken broth into the potatoes creates a lovely flavor.  Not too strong or overpowering, but subtle with each bite.

So few ingredients for such a flavorful dish

I added a few more herbs in since I had them on hand

And the braising begins

Voila - fork tender potatoes

Broth Braised Potatoes were a perfect side to the filet roast

The Broth-Braised Potatoes have made two appearances at our table since trying this.  We also recently tried the Spice-Glazed Carrots which are made with the same method, with an addition of butter and cardamom.  Simply put, both are delicious and simple to make during a hectic work week.
Fresh garlic, and colorful carrots with cardamom

I loved the colors of these carrots - shades of watermelon, cantaloupe and pineapple 

The carrots still maintained their integrity, and had a nice hint of spice to them

This was an exciting culinary week for me - so many firsts!  I wanted to thank Mary Lights on Bright No Brakes for including me in her post last week.  (Mary has a great sense of humor, and I always enjoy her posts.)   The French Friday's with Dorie is an exceptional group of culinary enthusiasts that inspire us all.
 I want to thank Guyla at Lola's Kitchen (great blog and beautiful photography, I'm always hungry and after reading) for the Liebster Award - its my first blog award.  The cherry on the top was being selected as one of the January 24X24 participants - 24 meals in 24 hours.  If you are interested in my menu and party, check back on Monday as it will be posted no later than 11:59 PM Sunday, January 29th.

I'd like to pass the Liebster Blog award onto Yummy Chunklet, she has been a great member of FFWD, and her posts outside of this group are always entertaining; Patty's Food her posts and photography have caused drooling in our house, and Cher at The Crazy World of Cher she entertains us all with her dabblings and is a chef who loves a challenge, not to mention she comments on every single FFWD post every week, which is pretty amazing.  There are so many more great blogs to list as everyone in the group is multi-faceted, entertaining and great sources of inspiration.

To read more about Broth Braised Potatoes from the French Friday’s with Dorie group, or to join:

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Say Cheese! Home-Made Ricotta Two Ways...

Home-Made Ricotta and Fig Appetizer

Let’s play a little word association.  When you hear or see the word “cheese,” what is your immediate thought?  Processed American cheese, bleu cheese, Swiss cheese, Cheeseheads, cheese and crackers . . . ?  I’ll bet it is not ricotta cheese.  And if someone out there is strange enough to have thought that, I’ll bet you did not think “home-made ricotta cheese.”

I am from Montana, not the dairy belt.  So I had no exposure to home-made cheese when growing up.  I love cheese and adore the many specialty cheese shops that have expanded the cheese horizon to include unique, locally produced cheeses, even in out of the way places like Lodi, California.  And I really appreciate a restaurant that steps beyond the ubiquitous cheese platter and incorporates some high quality cheese into its dishes.
Freshly squeezed lemon juice (I love how colorful the purple kale is against the  lemon)
Bring whole milk, cream, and lemon juice to a boil
Scoop curds into a strainer and let drain
After ricotta has drained, place in cheesecloth for storage

At B&B Ristorante (Batali & Bastianich) at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, perhaps the best dish of a most memorable meal was a house-made ricotta garnished with kale and new extra virgin olive oil.  Quality ingredients were simply combined in a way that really showcased their flavors.  As the last bite disappeared from my plate, I resolved to make some ricotta when I got home.

Fortunately, I remembered seeing a recipe for ricotta in the Mozza Cookbook by Nancy Silverton.  Nancy says that “ricotta” means “cooked twice” and since her version is only cooked once, it is not really “ricotta” but a creamy, fresh cheese that can be used in any recipe that calls for ricotta.  Heck, ricotta is not technically a “cheese” anyway, but who really cares about technicalities when something tastes delicious?

Among the many wonderful things about this ricotta is how easy it is to make.  Since it is only cooked once, it takes just 10 minutes to make and another hour to strain the liquid out.  It is so easy, I am not likely to buy packaged ricotta ever again.

We used our ricotta in two ways:  first, like at B&B Ristorante, served as a salad substitute with kale and olive oil; and, second,  as an appetizer on a fig cracker with Migas Figs and a drizzle of honey.  Sasha, the Wonder Dog, was at full attention when the appetizer version was brought out and gave an unqualified two paws up and a mighty tail wag.  Trust me, Sasha has a discriminating palate, so her reaction was a resounding endorsement of the dish. 

Home-made Ricotta – from Mozza Cookbook by Nancy Silverton, Page 41:

4 Cups Whole Milk
1 Cup Heavy Whipping Cream
2 Tablespoons Fresh Squeezed, Strained Lemon Juice
1 ½ Teaspoons Kosher Salt

Pour the milk, cream, lemon juice and salt into a small heavy-bottomed stainless steel saucepan and bring to a boil without stirring.  Turn off the heat and set the saucepan aside until the mixture cools slightly (5-10 minutes).  At this point, you will see the ricotta separating into curds.  Gently scoop the curds out of the saucepan and place carefully into a strainer to drain.  Don’t pour the mixture into the strainer as it will break up the curds.  Use the ricotta while it’s still warm, or place onto cheesecloth, tie the cheesecloth for form a package and suspend the package from the handle of a wooden spoon or chopsticks over a bowl to drain until you are ready to use.  The fresh ricotta will last about seven days in the refrigerator.

Ricotta with Kale:

5-10 Kale Leaves
Extra Virgin Olive Oil  (I suppose Mario has some people freshly pressing his virgin olives, but “old” extra virgin olive oil works just fine) 
Fleur de Sel

Blanch the kale leaves, place in a cold water bath for a couple minutes, then squeeze dry and julienne.  Place the julienned kale, and a little olive oil, salt and pepper, into a pan over medium heat to lightly warm.  Presentation is flexible.  You can place the ricotta on a bed of kale or use the kale as garnish on top of the ricotta.  Either way, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of fleur del sel.

Ricotta & Fig Crackers:

Migos Figs or Fresh Figs
Raincoast Fig Crackers
Fresh Pepper

Place the ricotta on the fig crackers.  Split the figs in half and place a half on top of the ricotta.  Drizzle with honey and a twist of fresh pepper.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Let them eat....Quatre-Quarts Cake with Olive Oil Ice Cream!

Quatre-Quarts Cake with Olive Oil Ice Cream

“Let them eat brioche!” is the disparaging comment that Marie Antoinette actually did not say.  The mistranslation (“cake” instead of “brioche”) and misattribution (not said by Marie) have continued to this day.  But let there be no misunderstanding.  When it comes to comparing this week’s Fridays with Dorie challenge, Quatre-Quarts Cake, with brioche (even the variety we made in a previous challenge), there is no comparison.  Peasants and royalty alike would choose the cake.

A little Armagnac adds a unique twist to the cake

Quatre-Quarts Cake is a perfectly balanced and delicious cake that is a wonderful accompaniment to an afternoon tea or to finish a meal.  The brown sugar crust adds a delightful crunch and slightly sweet element to the cake.  But I love to experiment, to “kick it up a notch” in the immortal words of Emeril.  I am not sure why, but Jell-O Cakes came to mind.  For those old enough to remember, a Jell-O Cake is made by poking holes in a plain white cake and pouring warm Jell-O over it.  I had some rosemary simple syrup on hand (don’t ask why), and thought it would be perfect with this cake.  So I poked some holes and drizzled on the rosemary simple syrup.  The aroma was delicious and portended a moist, tasty cake.

Rosemary Simple Syrup - not just for cocktails!

Was Jello-Cake just a Montana thing?  Sous Chef has never heard of it.....

But my cake still looked a little naked and needed something to jazz it up a bit.  My sous chef loves ice cream.  We had nothing suitable in the freezer, so I decided to multi-task and make Dorie’s Olive Oil Ice Cream found on page 479 of Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan. 

Look at that ice cream - don't you just want to take a big spoonful of it before it drips?

The Quatre-Quarts Cake was delicious; however, the Olive Oil Ice Cream stole the show.  It is made in the fashion of custard, with the addition of extra virgin olive oil at the end after the mixture has been strained.  The olive oil really enhances the creaminess of the ice cream, making it pure luxury on your palate.  The savory aspect of the ice cream played well with the rosemary simple syrup added to the Quarte-Quarts Cake.  And to spice things up a bit more, I added a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and pinch of Fleur De Sel over the ice cream.   Pure heaven!

Rosemary Simple Syrup – from Heidi Swanson 101 Cookbooks:

2 Cups Water
2 Cups Sugar
2 Fresh Rosemary Sprigs
1 Bay Leave (optional, but recommended)

Combine the sugar and water in a pan.  Stir over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.  Add the rosemary sprigs and bay leave and let simmer for 3-5 minutes.  Remove from heat and let infuse for 10 minutes.  When cool, transfer to a storage container and refrigerate.

To read more French Friday with Dorie Experiences, or to join the group: