Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mermaid Butter Cookies

I spent a lot of time in the kitchen when I was a kid.  Kitchen was the heart of our house and that’s where I remember my mother being the most.  My brightest and probably the fondest memory of her were probably when I was seven or eight year old.  It was a sunny, warm weekend morning in May.  The sun rays streaming through our huge open window bathing the spring onions and hot red peppers we had growing on our window seal.  The fresh cut lilacs swinging in the breeze filling our kitchen with pure spring fragrance.   My mother was making brunch.  She wore her “happy” bright orange house dress, with little ruffles around the sleeves, her than long blue-black hair dancing on her back.  She was making salad.  Simple salad of what was bought at the farmer’s market that morning, crisp new radishes, thin sprigs of young scallions and the first cucumbers of the season.    I can still hear the crisp strokes of her knife as she cut into the fresh produce.  I can still smell the cucumber sent, cool, clean, it filled our kitchen with unduplicated freshness.  I have not met that sent since…  Every time I walk out into my kitchen I try to duplicate that one perfect morning of simple joy of cooking with my mother and every time I pick up my knife she is there with me.
I like making things she used to make.  Her recipe notes are tucked away, mostly unreadable now.  I like holding them and try to make out her shorthand notes… she never meant for anyone but her to use them.  Tiny, fragile pieces of yellowed paper are all I have to go on except for my memories.  She had a lot of simple recipes for sweets, things that I could make with almost no help when I was little. I remember making these butter cookies, she called them “Mermaid cookies”, she said the waves of the dough reminded her of mermaids hair or waves of the ocean…  I never had a luxury as an adult of asking my mother for a recipe, but I like that some things, like these cookies, I can make from memory, as though she keeps guiding me.
A simple butter cookie is all that my husband needs to be happy…. I can bake my heart out, create complex cakes and tarts, bake macaroons and croissants, and he will still long for a simple butter cookie of his childhood.   We are a family of children at heart… each trying to recreate that one perfect long-ago moment….  A glass of milk and a dunking cookie is his idea of peace. 
This is not a fancy recipe, but the one that brings me and my husband back to our childhood.  It is the “everyday”  biscuit to bring a little whimsical comfort to our very grown up lives.
It is also the only cookie for which I give measurements in grams, as I learned to make it in the world where there were no ounces or cups.  I can of course re-calculate it to more common measurements, but I don’t want to.  I like keeping it old fashioned, after all, my mother did not use ounces….

Mermaid Cookies
550 Grams of all-purpose flour
300 grams of butter at room temperature
250 grams of sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp of baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
A pinch of salt

Cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the vanilla and the eggs and mix on low speed until well incorporated.  You may need to scrape down the sides a few times

Combine the flour, salt and the baking powder.  Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in 3 or 4 installments, mixing well.
Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead with your hands for a few minutes.  This will be very sticky dough with the crumbly edges.   Shape the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or better overnight.  You want this dough to be very cold before shaping the cookies.  You can also freeze it for up to 1 month, just make sure it is wrapped up very well.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375F.  Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper.   Using a meat grinder or a past cutting machine, feed the dough a little at a time.  You are looking for a collection of dough tubes. 

Cut the strands coming out of the machine with scissors, making the overall length of the cookies 2 to 2.5 inches long (you can make them shorter, but I like the dunking possibilities).
Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.  Cool on the cooling rack otherwise the bottoms get soggy.  Serve with a glass of milk or tea.

Think of your warm and fuzzy childhood day and dig in!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Whole roasted Pmfrei with Kumquats and Chilies

Granted, when I ask my standard “How do you cook that?”, I sometimes get a perplexed look, but as soon as you convince them that you are not a psycho, people open up.  I have noticed that most people love to talk about food, especially if you seem sincerely interested in their ethnic cuisine.   Last week was not a waste, as I waited in line at the fish counter in an Asian supermarket, I saw an Indian woman buying a whole live cat fish.  She asked for it to be hacked into small byte size pieces and that sparked my interest.  Surely she was not going to fry it Southern style?  I asked what she intended to do with it, and after she got over the initial shock of a red-headed creature in sweats asking her stupid questions, she gave me a wonderful recipe for a traditional Indian fish stew with lentils ( I suspect it is a version of Daal but can’t be sure).  A few minutes later I saw a man ordering up some Milk fish, which I was eyeing, but new nothing off, so I asked.  I got another great recipe for this firm fleshed fish poached in coconut milk and spices.  I am thoroughly convinced that the best recipes do not come from cookbooks; they come from people whose moms and grandmothers made these dishes since the beginning of time.
Browsing the same Asian supermarket, I stumble onto some kumquats and some beautifully perfect hot peppers.  I can’t tell you what type of chili these were, because there are over 4000 types of chili peppers in the world, and these were labeled with hieroglyphs (which must have reflected the real name) and English translation of simply “Long Hot Peppers”…  Sometimes I think these English translations are meant to mock the average English speaking person… like if you don’t know what it is and cannot read whatever language, you have no business being in this store… not that I care.  I am adventures, I will try anything, once due to this bad labeling I ended up with a sauce that smelled like rotten eggs and decomposing flesh all at once… the label simply said “Vietnamese sauce for vegetables”.
So back to the peppers and kumquats, both looked so good that I bought them along with four large Pompano fish which I intended to roast.   The peppers, fruit and a few other ingredients looked so good and colorful together that I thought of roasting the fish using them all.  It is hard to ruin a whole roasted fish.  This dish came out phenomenal, the fish was scented with citrus, with a slight heat from the chilies and it looked beautiful.
Whole roasted Pompano with Kumquats and Chilies
4 Pompano fish, head and tail on, just gutted and cleaned
1 large yellow onion sliced thin
Handful of parsley  
Handful of cilantro
1 lemon sliced thin
1 lime sliced thin
A handful of kumquats sliced thin
1 or two hot red chili peppers sliced thin
1 inch knob of fresh ginger sliced thin
Olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 425F.  Line a baking sheet with sliced onions,
parsley and cilantro. 

Pre-slice all the components so that you are all set up to stuff the

Season each fish inside with salt and pepper and stuff with a slice of lemon, slice of lime, ginger, kumquats and chilies.

Drizzle the outside of the fish on both sides with a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper.  Place the fish on the bed of onions and herbs and scatter the remaining ingredients all over the baking sheet.

Bake for 20 minutes until the fish is cooked through and opaque.  I like to turn on the broiler for the last 3 minutes of cooking to crisp up the skin.  Serve whole.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Lemon Souffle

My daughter and I were watching an old episode of Chopped All-stars, where both Aaron Sanchezand and Geoffrey Zakarian were dueling in the battle of soufflés for the final desert round.  It dawned on me, that I don’t remember the last time I made a soufflé.  It is just not one of my “go to” dishes, savory or sweet, due to the fact that it has to be prepared while you are eating dinner and served immediately.  But I love soufflés, I miss them, it is like eating clouds (at least it is the way it should be).  And soufflés are not something to be afraid of, if a few basic rules are followed, they will always come out perfectly puffed, will not fall and are not hard to make.  And you can vary your ingredients and spices in thousands of ways, making this a very versatile dish.  Cheese soufflés for example can be the most decadent thing you ever eat.
As we were about to start cooking a simple Sunday supper and I had all ingredients on hand, I decided to teach my daughter how to make a soufflé.  She begged for chocolate of course, but after a long debate we settled on a good, old fashioned, lemon soufflé.  I like my soufflé “eggy”, preferably made with duck eggs ( these are richer and smoother than chicken eggs), but the duck eggs in my fridge were already reserved for making pasta, so I went with plain old chicken eggs. 
Soufflés came out beautiful, tall and puffy, with a hint of lemons and angel like softness and richness from the yolks.
Next time you are not in a rush and would like to impress someone with “It must be so hard to make!” desert, go for a soufflé… It works as comfort food as well.
Lemon Soufflé
Makes 4 soufflés
6 egg yolks.
9 egg whites
8 tbs plus 3 more of sugar
2 tbs of melted butter, cooled
2/3 cup of crème fresh
3 tbs of cake flour
Zest of 3 lemons
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp of lemon extract
¼ tsp cream of tartar
1 tbs of butter and castor sugar for the ramekins

A few basic soufflé making rules:
-          Most soufflés are baked at 375F
-          If baking individual soufflés they take 22 minutes  ( just like a risotto)
-          You should preheat a baking sheet which the ramekins will go on with the oven, this way, your soufflé gets a decent amount of heat from the bottom right away.
-          You should bake on the middle rack and there should be no other oven racks above your soufflés or they will not rise properly.
-          You can make the base ahead of time, but the whites must be incorporated right before you bake.
-          Don’t take your soufflé out of the oven right away.  Turn the oven off and let them cool for 3-5 minutes before taking them out.
-          If your soufflé doesn’t rise or falls (which shouldn’t happen if you follow the rules), just call it pudding and go on with your life… it will still be delicious.
Preheat the oven to 375F with a baking sheet inside.  Prepare the ramekins by buttering them (not too thick) and dusting the insides with castor sugar ( you can use regular granulated sugar as well).  Make the base.  Whip egg yolks with 8 tbs of sugar until pale yellow and ribbons appear on the surface.  Stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice and lemon extract.  Next stir in the melted butter and crème fresh. Sift the flour and gently stir it in, the mixture should be the consistency of smooth pancake batter, slightly runny is ok.
Whip the egg whites until frothy, then add the cream of tartar and continue beating until soft peaks appear.  Add the 3 tbs of sugar slowly, one at a time and continue beating until the peaks are firm and hold their shape.
Take half of the egg whites and fold them gently with a spatula into the base.  You want to work from the outside of the bowl, folding from the bottom.  Do not stir, or you will deflate the batter.
Fill your ramekins with the soufflé batter about 2/3.  Top each ramekin with a “hat” using the rest of the egg whites.  Smooth out the tops with a spatula. 
Bake for 22 minutes, until the soufflés have risen and the tops are golden brown.  Do not open the oven while baking, patience is a virtue.  Turn off the oven and let cool inside without opening the oven door for 3 to 5 minutes.  Serve immediately.

I imagine this is what angels eat! Pure clouds!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Travels and Tastes - New Orleans

If you are cuckoo, eccentric, oddball and bazar, you might be thinking of making your way to the West coast.  But if you care more about “your music” and just having a good time, then saving dolphins and growing your own chickens, places for oddballs ( like Santa Cruz) will simply not take you.  You would be better off to just head straight for New Orleans, they will take anyone… no special butterfly loving skills needed, just an open mind.

If you are cuckoo, eccentric, oddball and bazar, you might be thinking of making your way to the West coast.  But if you care more about “your music” and just having a good time, then saving
dolphins and growing your own chickens, places for
oddballs ( like Santa Cruz) will simply not
take you.  You would be better off to just head straight for
New Orleans, they will take anyone…
no special butterfly loving skills needed, just an open mind.
Having now been to New Orleans twice, I am now thoroughly
convinced that it is the most insane place on earth.  Where
else can you get a drink at 8 a.m., drink it on the street, while
browsing windows of strip bars and fine antiques all on the
same block.  If you are to thoroughly enjoy New Orleans,
you need to check your idea of common sense and
inhibitions at the airport…you also might want to leave your
wallet, and liver there too.
The first time I was in New Orleans was a little less than a
year before Katrina.  This time around I was wondering if I
would see the effects of the storm…   No you can’t see the
effects with the naked eye (not in most neighborhoods
anyway), no damaged buildings or closed businesses… but
the damage is there.  “The Storms” come up in every single
conversation with anyone, cab drivers, tour guides,
bartenders… there is a “before” and “after” New Orleans. 
“Before” and “After” lives.  Some folks have recovered
financially and some are still struggling, but all, without
exception, are scared in some way.  And even though the
city has bounced back and lost none of its beauty or crazy
charm, even though the “good times” are rolling all over the
place, there will always be “the before and after” New
We have managed to do it all in the short two days, even
becoming a local attraction (you can see how attractive here).  More time would have been
nice, but if we have stayed two more days, I think I would
need a liver transplant.
So here is a little photo journal, on having a good time New
Orleans way:

You start with the breakfast of champions – a Bloody Mary. 
 You will have many more of them throughout the day, but
the first one is most important, it sets the whole’s day mood.
Toast to the new day!

Enjoy the music, dancing on the street is not only allowed,
but encouraged.

You many need a nap by 10 a.m., go ahead take one… you
will need the energy later.

Relax in a courtyard under
the beautiful cast iron work…
 Now I remember why I love
all the ornate wrought iron
and have it all over the place
in my house…
Or take in the Garden District.  If you are bold enough, you
may actually get to talk to some of the gardners to rich and

Stop by at the French Market and sample some local flair …

Have them shuck right in front of you.
I love oysters, they just don’t love me back… didn’t prevent
everyone from consuming dozens and dozens. So fat, so
juicy with the scent of the sea!
There are paintings of oysters all over the galleries of New
Orleans, I don’t know why, when you can just get the real
thing and eat it too.

Mountains of craw fish… if you are a craw fish fan, these are
boiled simply with lemon, bay leaf, red chilly flake, salt, black
 pepper corns and parsley…

Get a pound, or six and go ahead, make a mess…
After being thoroughly fed and watered (not with water… no
way), you may want to pretend to be the Queen of
England… go ahead, in this city no one will mind
Or put your “crazy” on!

Or take a bath to wash off the day!
And just before you settle for the never ending night of jazz
and party… one more snack at cafe Du Monde… chicory
Café O’ulait and Beignets.

We will certainly be back to this wonderfully nuts city!  In the
meantime, we will miss it, or it may miss us more!

And Another! 
Speaking of Bloody Mary’s, I don’t understand why only in
New Orleans they manage to make this cocktail this good.
And it is good almost everywhere, almost all restaurants, and
whole in the wall or not bars… everywhere.  They pretty
much got their mixology all figured out…even their Long
Island Iced teas taste better than in Long Island ( why do
they call it a LIT anyway?)

Have another!

Take in some historical scenery…. Go on a tour, preferably
before noon, you may not care very much about the city’s
history after a few of those excellent drinks.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Don’t Call me Muffin! – Coffee Cake

How many times have you contemplated a healthy breakfast?  How many times did you reach for a bran or carrot muffin, thinking,” this is not so bad, better than bacon and eggs, right”?  Wrong!  The word “muffin” actually means “cake”, and that is exactly what it is, laden with butter and sugar… I will stick to bacon and eggs, thank you very much.
But if you are in a mood for a sweet treat with your morning or afternoon coffee or tea… go for it, just  call it what it is…. a deceptively good, baked sweet.  I tried to lighten things up a bit, using no butter in this recipe for “not muffins”, let’s call them cinnamon swirl coffee cakes.
Cinnamon swirl coffee cakes
½ cup of yogurt or buttermilk
½ cup of sour cream
1 egg
1 ¼ cup sugar
4 tbs ground cinnamon
¼ cup vegetable oil
12 oz of cake flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp of baking soda
A pinch of salt
1 tbs butter for buttering the muffin forms.

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Make the cinnamon filling by combining ¼ cup of sugar with all the cinnamon.  Add a splash of water and mix.  You are looking for a thin paste consistency.

Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl.  Whisk together the yogurt, sour cream, egg, sugar and vegetable oil until combined.

Add the dry goods and mix until just combined.  Don’t over mix.

Scoop some batter into the buttered muffin forms.  Top with about a teaspoon of the cinnamon filling, than add a little more batter to top off.  Do not fill the forms all the way to the top.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, rotating the pan half-way through the cooking.  Bake until an inserted toothpick comes out dry.  Once baked, invert the pan onto a tea towel right away and cool the cakes on the cooling rack so they don’t become soggy.

Don’t these just scream “Eat me, but don’t call me muffin!”

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Country style braised ribs.

Lately this blog of mine has become something of a burden, after all it supposed to be about the food, yet I keep searching for a different format.  I find myself wanting to write about more profound things, thoughts that I have long awaited to put on paper.  I have the food and the recipes and the pictures all lined up, yet I keep searching for the context to put them in… luckily one just happen to pop up…

As I was sitting through a Cirque du Soleil tribute to Michael Jackson, I thought of the phenomena of one’s influence on society. A concept of one’s art (whether it a written word, a painting, a song, a building…) influencing thousands, millions of people, for generations to come.   A concept of recognizable white gloved moon walk, or a four boys with mop-top hair, or a sight of Roman amphitheater or a familiar quote, for fifteen minutes, a year, a century or longer….   How does one doing, influence a whole generation or a few, what imprint these icons have on our society?  I sat in a thousand full arena thinking that all the people there (and millions more around the world) sharing the same nostalgic love for this particular music, a single unifying thread linking so many against the odds… 

Our world consists of these individuals, the ones that left, or will leave an inerasable mark on our society.  They create their visions, sometimes with no regard of the consumer, profoundly absorbed in their love of their idea.  Some achieve stardom immediately and some are not recognized until long after their deaths, but they all have one thing in common, they unite likeminded folks all around the world, despite all the usual differences and times past… What would our world we be like without Shakespeare, Mozart, the architect of Notre Dame, Lady Gaga?  Some will stand the true test of time and some will fade, yet in their solace they keep millions of hearts and minds engaged, full of their vision….

We all search for some meaning in our lives; we search for it in different ways and in different contexts.  I think that being able to leave your mark on a world you live in is the ultimate goal.  Whether you engage a 10,000 people in an arena at a concert or you cook a dish that stimulates the senses of the few for just a couple of minutes, it doesn’t matter…. The fact is, if you have managed to invoke an emotion from even one person with whatever it is you do… you have succeeded, you have made your mark on the society, no matter how small or insignificant….  If today you wrote a paragraph that someone reads, painted a picture that someone contemplated or cooked something that made someone lick their plates… you are ahead of the game, on your way to making a small dent on your corner of humanity….

Upon reading the above ravings, my son asked me if I ever considered a career as a standup philosopher.  He also told me that I should probably stick to lighter subjects on this blog, and I think he is right.  So, no more contemplating of greater questions in life, next week I will go back to what I do best… cook.  Oh, and by the way, I am going to New Orleans next week, so hopefully I will have enough inspiration for another Travels and Tastes piece.

Speaking of leaving a mark on this world… here is the recipe for country style braised ribs that are definitely worthy of being called society altering:

Country Style Braised Ribs

2 Lbs ( 8 -10 pieces) of country style pork ribs.  Country style cut is usually boneless, or with just a tip of the bone left.  Cut from the loin portion.

1 small onion chopped

4 cloves of garlic chopped

Vegetable oil

For the dry rub:

1 tbs fennel seeds

1 tbs of ancho chili powder

2 tbs of brown sugar

1 tsp smoked cinnamon ( non-smoked is ok too)

1 tsp dry mustard powder

1/2 tsp of cayanne pepper ( use less if you are heat shy)

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 ½ tsp of kosher salt

For the braising liquid:

2.5 cups apple cider

¼ cup soy sauce

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

3 tbs of tomato paste

2 tbs of honey

Salt to taste

Mix all the dry rub spices and rub the ribs generously.  Cover with plastic and marinade in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350F.   On the stove, preheat a heavy bottom, oven safe pot (Dutch oven is perfect).  Add the vegetable oil and sear each rib on all sides until nicely browned.  Set aside.  Lower the heat; add onion and garlic to the oil and sauté for a few minutes until soft.

Add all the braising liquid ingredients to the onion and garlic and bring to a simmer.  Add the meat back in, the liquid should just cover all the ribs.  If you need to add a little more liquid, add chicken or beef stock.
Cover and cook in the oven for 1 hour. After one hour, take the lid off and cook another 30-40 minutes or until the ribs are fall of the bone tender.
Once the ribs are done, the sauce should have become a thick glaze.  If it is still to liquid, take out the meat and reduce the liquid on stove top until it is a syrupy consistency.  Pour over the ribs and serve.

Now these are worthy of a following!