Saturday, July 27, 2013

The French Paradox & Dieter's Tartine

Periodic makeovers are necessary for any diva.  A freshening of the wardrobe, make-up and hair—maybe even a little attitude adjustment-- is needed at least once a year, but preferably seasonally as the weather changes.  A diva cannot get stale; nor should her website.  So that is why Confessions of a Culinary Diva is getting a make-over.  My stylist is the talented Evy Hanson, owner of Leap Online Marketing , and she is helping me create a new and vibrant website that will embrace my varied interests.  Confessions of a Culinary Diva will have more lifestyle content as I share with you travel and restaurant recommendations and experiences, culinary and travel book and product reviews--trust me the  Vitamix is worth the money and I will tell you why-- fashion tips, and things to do if you find yourself in Southern California, particularly the Palm Springs area.  The new website should be up and running soon, but in the meantime let’s continue our culinary journey through Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan.

”Diet” is a nasty four letter word that makes me cringe and conjures visions of unpalatable food, miniscule portions, and cardboard packaging.  While it is something I should be doing, a diet is a grim prospect for someone who adores cocktails, wine, cheese, bread, cream, and butter.  Imagine my surprise when this week’s “French Fridays with Dorie” challenge was “Dieter’s Tartine”.  Tartine and diet used in the same sentence – a bit of an oxymoron in this day and age when bread, gluten, wheat and just about anything we enjoy should be purged from our diets. 

This recipe falls into what I classify as the “no recipe needed recipe.”  Just grab a fresh loaf of French bread and a few fresh veggies to dice.  Slice the bread and grill or toast it.  Spread on some fromage blanc, crème’ fraiche’, sour cream, or cottage cheese.  And top with diced veggies–-cucumber and tomato are recommended--along with a sprinkling of herbs and chives.  You decide which veggies and toppings to use and, Voila!, lunch is served.

Whether on a diet or not, the Dieter’s Tartine is sublime.  Not only is it easy to make, you may delude yourself that this is actually a “diet” food Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem might endorse.  After all, fresh veggies are a main component to the toppings that are slathered onto a piece of grilled, crusty, country-style French bread.  Fortunately, the French have a sensible approach to “diet,” with moderation not elimination being the key element.  So I declare this French dish to be so salubrious that it must be accompanied by a glass of chilled, crisp, dry rose from Provence.  The French Paradox minus the cigarette should be observed to get the full effect of this “diet” food.

To learn what other Doristas think about the “Dieter’s Tartine,” visit French Fridays with Dorie.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Bumbler & The Beast - Norwegian Wolffish

From my perspective, it was a matter of beauty and the beast, although the beast part was not readily apparent from its packaging and beauty is always subjective and sometimes fleeting.  From my sous chef’s perspective, it was a matter of the bumbler and the beast.

While rummaging for swordfish in the frozen foods section of Trader Joe’s, I came across one of those “special” TJ foods that often pique my curiosity.  You know the kind:  something totally unknown or, at best, vaguely familiar, but marketed by TJ to sound intriguing, adventuresome, and edible, if not delicious. 

Does anyone know a good dentist?
 Alas, TJ had no swordfish (which I could not believe since I normally wade through piles of it when looking for other fish), but it did have spotted Norwegian Wolffish (Anarchichas Minor) that, according to a TJ stockman serving that moment as an enlightened fishmonger, would be a good substitute.  The package he handed me had an appealing label that showed the Wolffish in profile (clearly its best viewpoint as the photos demonstrate) and identified it as having meat that was white and firm and a taste redolent of lobster, crab, and shellfish.  Plus it can be cooked in a number of ways:   baked, fried, grilled, poached, steamed or sautéed.  It all sounded good to me, so Norwegian Wolffish would stand-in for swordfish in this week’s “French Fridays with Dorie” cooking experience.       

Julia handled Monkfish much better than I do Wolffish

Not your average lap pet

According to TJ and other online sources, the Norwegian Wolffish is a sharp toothed, cold water fish whose flavor derives from its diet of shellfish, such as mussels, scallops, sea urchins, and crabs.  Norwegian Wolffish is known to reach lengths of up to 7 feet and weigh up to 40 pounds.  Their fang-like teeth are part of a rather stout head and large mouth, all the better to dislodge mollusks and crustaceans from their familial homes on the rocky bottoms of near freezing deep waters like the Barents Sea above Norway or to dismember the fingers of careless fisherman.  Despite its dental and facial shortcomings, the Anarchichas Minor variety is quite fashionable with leopard-like spots on its scale-less, silky-smooth skin.  Armed with two fillets of this beast, I strode from TJ’s determined to make a dish worthy of Dorie’s praise.

This week’s recipe from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan is very simple:  sautéed or grilled swordfish served with an herb salad tossed with a splendid Dijon vinaigrette.  This is something that can easily be whipped up after a long day at the office and gives the impression that you are eating light and healthy.  And for those who used swordfish or did not suffer a culinary brain cramp, it probably was all those things Dorie intended.

Looks can be deceiving 
Out of necessity, inquisitiveness, or downright contrariness, I often substitute ingredients, usually with good results.  But my experience with Norwegian Wolffish reminds that there are a number of universal cooking guidelines that should always be observed.  First, make sure that what you substitute does not compromise the integrity of the recipe.    Second, check cooking times and methods for the substitute since they may not be the same as for the original.  Third, when defrosting frozen fish, follow the instructions on the package.  If there are none, at least take it out of its original packaging, pat dry, place on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and leave it in the refrigerator overnight.  Defrosting in the original packaging causes the fish to absorb lots of unwanted and likely unpleasant liquid.  Fourth, when you want fish to have a crispy skin, dry the skin first, cook in a hot pan, add the fish to the pan skin side down and, using a flexible spatula, press on the flesh until the fillet flattens out (this makes sure all the skin is in contact with the pan), and don’t flip back and forth, just let it cook on the skin side until the last couple of minutes when you can finish on the flesh side.   

Rafa is looking for a better recipe and instructions
I most certainly violated guidelines two, three and four.  Guideline Two:  Dorie’s recipe calls for a seven minute sauté whereas TJ’s recipe calls for twenty minutes baking in the oven.  I sautéed for seven minutes and it was not enough.  Guideline Three:  I defrosted overnight in the airtight packaging and the fish was swimming in liquid the next day.  Guideline Four:  I cooked the fish flesh side down for the most part.  The result was a tough, slimy, unpleasant looking skin, an undercooked fish with areas that looked and felt gelatinous, and none of the succulent flavors of lobster or other shellfish that I was craving.  Lesson learned and I will give the Norwegian Wolffish another try.  At least the salad was excellent.  

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Kitchen Therapy - A Glass of Rose' & Savory Clafoutis

Gallup has recently confirmed what everyone knows:  70% of us don’t feel positively about our source of daily bread.  And by that they don’t mean our local bakers but our gig, our grind, our old 9-to-5.  The best thing about a vocation is a vacation, but an avocation can lead to many pleasurable hours and experiences.

As a culinary diva, food and beverages are my avocation, a status I would upgrade to vocation in a blink if I could thereby support sous chef and me.  That seems unlikely, however, so I pursue my passion in many ways:  restaurants, bars, wineries, farmers markets, food blogs, and the like.  Yet perhaps my favorite pursuit is cooking.  Not the sweaty, neurotic kind of cooking done in a restaurant or the frenzied kind of cooking for dinner parties or large groups.  But the serene, agreeable experience of trying new recipes or crafting old ones in clever and delectable ways, all in the comfort of one’s own kitchen.  What a great way to unwind after a day of drudgery—and it certainly does not hurt to have sous chef provide me with a glass of chilled French Rosé before the cooking begins (and refills as it proceeds). 

My sous chef and I love the challenge of using a favored dish as a platform for other dishes.  There is something about the inventive use of familiar fare that is fundamentally rewarding.  I would be pleased as punch to be known as the “MacGyver of the kitchen,” so I was thrilled that the sweet, luscious Cherry Clafoutis I wrote about in June can easily be turned into a savory delight.  I took the base recipe for Clafoutis, omitted the sugar, exchanged heirloom cherry tomatoes for the cherries, and added some fresh basil and cubed cheese to the mix.   The result was a Savory Clafoutis that can be served on its own as a first course, as a side to a brunch, or as a light lunch with an herb infused salad. 

The combinations and permutations for the little Clafoutis are seemingly endless.  Crave some pork fat:   just add bacon or pancetta.  Feeling Greek:  combine olives and feta with the tomatoes and garnish with some freshly diced cucumber and dill.  Fromage lover?  Go for it!  The base Clafoutis is the perfect canvas for mild to strong cheeses to shine.  Heck, why not have a Clafoutis party?  Fix up a batch of Clafoutis batter and let the guests add their own ingredients to make them sweet or savory.  

Savory Clafoutis


4 eggs
¾ cup of sugar
Pinch of salt
Scant ½ cup ground almonds
2 Tbs all-purpose flour
7 Tbs creme fraiche (can substitute sour cream)
 7 Tbs Buttermilk (or regular milk)


1 container Mini Heirloom  Tomatoes
1 cup diced cheese of your choice
2 spring onions diced
Chopped fresh herbs of your choice

Bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter and flour 6-8 ramekins or one 7 ½ by 4 inch baking dish or pan.  (I used bread crumbs that I had seasoned with garlic, black pepper and sea salt, in place of flour in the ramekins.)

Place tomatoes evenly across bottom of the prepared ramekins or dish.

Whisk the eggs with sugar and salt until pale yellow and thick. Sift and fold in the ground nuts and flour, then stir in the crème fraiche.   Add cheese, spring onions and freshly chopped herbs.  Make sure the ingredients are well mixed.

Pour or ladle the batter over the tomatoes, place the ramekins or dish on a baking tray, and bake for 30-40 minutes until golden brown.

Interested in reading more experiences with Cherry Clafoutis?  This week the Dorista's over at French Friday's with Dorie have a gaggle of experiences to read about.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Hemmingway, Daiquiris and Me

It’s summertime, and the living isn’t always so easy.  There are weddings, graduations, picnics, family reunions, and holidays.  To best negotiate these treacherous waters, one often needs an adult beverage or two.  Ernest Hemmingway may have had this is mind when he said “I drink to make other people more interesting.  [There are some who attribute the quote to George Jean Nathan, but there is no doubt Hemmingway said “An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.”]  While I never sanction drunkenness, public or otherwise, and advocate moderation in all things culinary and alcoholic, a sophisticated cocktail or two is not such a bad thing to help one get through a summertime ordeal.

Papa Hemmingway knew a thing or two about cocktails and a lot about surviving the summer heat.  So when I read about one of his go-to drinks from La Florida Bar in Havana, Cuba, the temptation was irresistible.  While there seems to be some confusion about the origins of the “Hemmingway Daiquiri,” this much is agreed.  It originated at La Florida Bar in the 1930s; it is not the same as a “Papa Doble,” the name given to Hemmingway’s version of La Florida’s standard daiquiri that resulted from his tasting the standard and saying he did not like sugar and it needed more rum; and the version below evolved over several years, as is evident from comparing the 1935 and 1939 editions of the La Florida Cocktail Book. 

Hemmingway’s affection for this cocktail makes sense.  It is adventuresome, bold, straightforward, refreshing, and easy to quaff.  And while not for the faint of heart, it is just perfect for the long, hot days of summer we have here in the Coachella Valley.  So make a Hemmingway Daiquiri, grab a copy of A Moveable Feast or The Sun Also Rises, and enjoy a summer’s afternoon in the pool or under an umbrella.  As Hemmingway so aptly said:  “Drinking is a way of ending the day.”

Hemmingway Daiquiri - from Vintage Cocktails by Assouline

Serves 1

1 oz. white rum
1/4 oz. Maraschino Liqueur (not Maraschino cherries - I prefer the Maraschino Liqueur by Luxardo)
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
3/4 oz fresh lime juice

Place all ingredients in cocktail shaker.  Shake all ingredients and strain into a small cocktail glass.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Other Boleyn Cake

I lost my head over this cake.  Fortunately, my loss was merely figurative, whereas the inspiration for the cake’s name literally lost hers. 

It is rumored that Henry VIII named a particular cake containing almonds the “Maids of Honour Cake” after seeing Anne Boleyn and her ladies-in-waiting eating them.  Henry became so fond of these cakes that the recipe was locked away in a chest in the Richmond Palace.  During the 18th Century, the recipe was obtained by a Richmond bakery which thereafter made the cakes available to the public.  Today the cakes are frequently used at teas and as wedding favors.  They can still be found at:

Since the original recipe for the “Maids of Honour Cakes” seems to be under lock and key, there are many variations to it – including one from Emeril.   The following recipe is courtesy of Cooks Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchens for whom I am a recipe tester. 

The combination of almond and lemon is much used in baking as almonds help smooth the lemon’s sharpness in cakes and tarts.  There are two different flavors to almond – bitter and sweet.  The bitter almond has hints of mild, milky grass when raw, and when roasted a richer flavor with a slight toffee-popcorn flavor.  The bitter almond is what you taste in extract, essence and Amaretto.  Sweet almond has a soft, rounded flavor that makes them highly compatible with other ingredients.  Almond is used also to boost the flavor of other nuts, so if you think you taste almond in your pistachio ice cream you are probably right. 

Here is an updated version of what I will call “Ladies Who Lunch Cake”.  It is moist and light, with rich almond flavors.  The topping has a delightful surprise of citrus and delicate crunch.  Serve with a little Champagne and this may become one of your most requested recipes.

Ladies Who Lunch Cake – America’s Test Kitchens

Serves 8-10

1½ cups plus  cup blanched sliced almonds, toasted
¾ cup (3¾ ounces) all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon baking soda
4 large eggs
1¼ cups (8¾ ounces) plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
¾ teaspoon almond extract
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
⅓ cup vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. 

Grease and flour one 9-inch round cake pan, line bottom with parchment paper.

Place almonds, flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in food processor or Vitamix and pulse until almonds are finely ground, 5 to 10 pulses.  Transfer the almond-flour mixture to a bowl.

Place eggs, 1¼ cup sugar, 1 tablespoon lemon zest, and extract in the now empty food processor or Vitamix and process for 2 minutes (go smoothly up to 5 on the Vitamix).  While the food processor or Vitamix is running, add the butter and then add the vegetable oil in a steady stream.  Once processing is finished, add the almond-flour mixture and pulse 4 or 5 times until the mixture is fully combined.  Transfer the resulting batter to the prepared pan.

Using fingers, combine in a bowl the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and remaining ½ teaspoon of lemon zest until fragrant (approximately 5-10 seconds).  Sprinkle this sugar mixture evenly on top of unbaked cake batter and then sprinkle on the remaining ⅓ cup almonds.

Bake approximately 55 to 65 minutes, until center of cake is set and bounces back when gently pressed and toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Pan should be rotated 180 degrees after 40 minutes.  Transfer pan to the wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes.  After 10 minutes, run a paring knife around the sides of pan to loosen.  Remove cake from pan, remove and discard the parchment, and let cake cool completely on the rack for approximately 2 hours.  Cut into wedges and serve.