Thursday, February 28, 2008

Comforting, Nostalgic and a Little Weird

Today, I wanted to eat SOMETHING but I just couldn't decided what I was craving. I mentally scanned what I had at home, flipped through the numerous recipes in my head and nothing, but nothing, sounded good. It's sooo cold today and I suddenly thought, a comforting and nourishing soup to warm my wee bones. Why, yes indeed!

Everyone has a favorite comfort food; meatloaf, macaroni and cheese etc. My top choice for comfort is a soup my mother has been making since I was a kid. It's a cream of celery soup from one of the Moosewood cookbooks, although I think it's all about the creamy potato base. Actually, I'm a big fan of creamy clam chowder, creamy potato-corn get the picture. But my first love was this cream of celery. I often make this soup and can eat bowl after bowl.

So that was my initial inspiration. I thought about what else I had at home. Hmmm, some fresh spinach and some bacon that was leftover from my quest to make the perfect burger last night. As an aside, I need to work on the burger, especially the burger and the bread. All the toppings though-caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, extra-sharp Vermont cheddar, hot peppers and spinach-were perfecto.

OK, back to the soup. Thinking about a potato soup with spinach could mean a sort of cream of spinach? Then I was reminded of my travels through Peru and the unexpected but delightful creamy soups that graced the countryside. In Peru, most restaurants have a tourist menu and a local menu. Ask for the local menu and you will not only get a more reasonably priced menu, but it is a multicourse menu. Invariably, the first course was some creamy soup-cream of asparagus, cream of spinach and so on. This warmed me right up to Peru.

I call this soup a little weird because I had no cream or milk to add to the soup. So when I pureed it, I added some cottage cheese, which seemed to work pretty well. Then my dad (he lives upstairs) came home and I scavenged some of the heavy cream he always keeps around for coffee. I know, gross. So if I made this again, I don't know how necessary cottage cheese AND cream is but it tasted darn good. I already ate two bowls and am going back for more!

Creamy Potato-Spinach Soup

2-3 slices bacon (optional)
1-2 T butter ( you could use olive oil but we're talking comfort food here)
1 large onion, diced (make sure it's really sweet)
1/2 bunch spinach
3 medium-large potatoes, washed and cut into chunks
water to cover the potatoes
salt and pepper
1/2 c. cottage cheese
1/4 c. heavy cream

Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with water, probably about 2 cups. Cook until tender, 15-20 minutes. While that's going, cook the bacon in a skillet until crisp and remove. In the leftover bacon grease, add a little more butter. Just do it, it's only one tablespoon for a big pot of soup. Add the onions and saute about 20 minutes. Add the spinach and cook a couple of minutes. Now put that all together in a blender or food processor, add cottage cheese if that's your fancy, and puree until smooth. Return to the pot, add salt, pepper and cream. Top with crumbled bacon.

Notes: I got one of those sweet mayan onions and it really made a difference. I really recommend getting a good one for this soup. I did add a splash of chicken broth at the end so it wasn't so thick. Also, sometimes I like a completely smooth soup and other times I like it a bit more rustic. So you could puree the whole thing or reserve some of the sauteed onions to stir back into the soup at the end. Either way, it's fantastic.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In Memoriam

Excuse me for straying from the theme of this blog but I must give several moments of silence for Candice Mead Racina, who was laid to rest today. Candice was a childhood friend of my best friend Amy and I had the pleasure of spending time with her and her family several times while l was living in New Orleans. She was only 29 years old when she had a fatal accident last week. An incredible tragedy and my heart goes out to her whole family, especially her beautiful, little ones.

"Cake Week" or "I Work in the Best Office Ever"

Caution: You may get diabetes just from reading this post

I love my coworkers, I really do, and for many reasons. The following tale should clue you in on at least one of those reasons. So, a while ago, Kristin was creating our February/March office calendar, you know, meeting on this date, deadline here etc. As she colored in a cake on the Tuesday, February 26th box (my birthday aka the best day of the year)she had a very disturbing realization. You see, everyone here requests what cake they would like on their birthdays at our annual staff retreat and everyone, not just the birthday boy/girl, looks forward to cake day. Kristin isn't in the office on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, meaning she would miss cake day. So that Krisitin wouldn't miss out on cake, we jokingly dubbed the entire week Cake Week and we all got a chuckle out of the calendar every time we glanced that way.

Well, I knew my coworkers were incredible but I underestimated them. Kristin strolled in Monday morning, now known as Day One of Cake Week, with a tray full of pizelles with almond paste that her grandmother had lovingly prepared. I love little, Italian grandmothers who bake. Anyway, I really was surprised and pleased that it appeared Cake Week was no pipe dream, but a real-life, fantastic new holiday. As if that wasn't enough, Bill came back in the afternoon with two pieces of cheesecake because, well, perhaps because pizelles aren't really cake and we were really trying to stick to a most rigid definition.

I have to take a quick break from Cake Week to tell you that the very same night, on the eve of my first 29th birthday, N. very thoughtfully brought over real French champagne and this really great Green&Black's organic white chocolate ice cream with strawberries. Because I probably needed more sugar. Incidentally, if you wait until your actual birthday to drink champagne and eat dessert, I would advise you to change that up. It's really grand the other way.

Back to Cake Week. You should know that I ate leftover cheesecake for breakfast. It's my birthday, I do what I wanna! Sadly, N. was very sick and so our romantic lunch date was postponed, meaning those marvelous coworkers of mine decided to order me a pizza. I mean, I shared it with them but you know what I'm saying. I thought that pizza would take the place of cake but no, no. I was rewarded with cupcakes. At that point, I was feeling a little queasy so I decided to do a little retail therapy to work it off. I probably burned a ton of calories walking around Target.

Finally, off to Tasty Tuesday with my girls and girl-like boys. I already posted about our wonderful sushi feast and divine chocolate cake by Meg (By the way girl, you should start a business! You can bake!)

Day Three of Cake Week has dawned and I was pretty sure that all the leftover cupcakes from yesterday would suffice. I mean, technically, if we're eating cake, it's still Cake Week. Well, don't you know that Young Devan stepped out of the office for a bit and brought back cannoli, even one for my sick boy at home! Weirdly, I am feeling a little sleepy, sluggish and fluttery (Sugar crash? Hmmm.) but more than anything, very loved.

We are only halfway through the week and I'm quite certain I've gained 30 lbs but nonetheless, Cake Week has made us all so happy that we are writing it into our budget and strategic plan for success and longevity. It will give us all something to look forward to the last week of February and who doesn't need that? Two more days of cake week!

My Sister is a GENIUS!!!!!!

Yes, Nika, I'm talking about you. Tess, you're pretty sharp too but this is about the eldest sister. Anyone who knows my sister is also aware that she is the logical, rational, brain of the family. So, it's no surprise then that I should reference her blog for some food inspiration, updates on my fabulous niece or tidbits about running and financial investments. Anyway, I saw a couple of recipes that I am quite certain I never would have made had my sister not highly lauded them on her site. I mean, tofu with brussel sprouts doesn't exactly scream my name. But, the weirdest thing happened. I made it, I loved it, I made it two more times that week. Crazical. So, I'll give you Nika's recipe, followed, of course, with my substitutions and theories.

Caramelized Tofu (From 101 Cookbooks)

7 – 8 ounces extra-firm tofu cut into thin 1-inch segments
a couple pinches of fine-grain sea salt
a couple splashes of olive or peanut oil (I used peanut)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/2 lb. brussels sprouts, washed and cut into 1/8-inch wide ribbons

Cook the tofu strips in large hot skillet (or pot) with a bit of salt and a splash of oil. Saute until slightly golden, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and pecans, and cook for another minute. Stir in sugar. Cook for another couple of minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro. Scrape the tofu out onto a plate and set aside while you cook the brussels sprouts.

In the same pan (no need to wash), add a touch more oil, another pinch of salt, and dial the heat up to medium-high. When the pan is nice and hot stir in the shredded brussels sprouts. Cook for 2 – 3 minutes, stirring a couple times (but not too often) until you get some golden bits, and the rest of the sprouts are bright and delicious. Divide brussels sprouts and top with tofu mixture.

Serves 2 – 3 as a main, 4 as a side

Notes: At first, I thought it was too sweet. Then I got into it, but I decided that when I have sweet notes in my food, I like heat to complement it. So the next time I made it, I added crushed red pepper AND I added 2 T. sugar to the tofu and then 1 T. to the brussel sprout so they would caramelize too. It was goooood. I also had to cook the tofu longer than 4 minutes, maybe 6-8 minutes. Finally, it fed N. and me but I could have eaten more so I think 2 main course servings is more my speed. But that's why I'm a lot bigger then my sister!

Luckiest Girl in the WORLD!

I just have to thank all my friends and family for making yesterday a truly lovely day. I received so many wonderful cards, emails, text messages, phone calls and so on that were all so thoughtful. I also got some FABULOUS presents! And of course, there was marvelous food yesterday. I have been waiting for my birthday to fall on Tasty Tuesday for about five years and I was not disappointed. Ms. Vaughan took the lead and ordered a feast from Kuni's. Everything was fantastic; the wasabi shumai, the spicy tuna, avocado etc. etc. I had never tried inari before, tofu and rice pockets sounded awfully boring. But they were highly recommended and absolutely delicious. I have a new love! Oh, and Meg made (from scratch!) a divine dark chocolate cake with peanut butter cream frosting. I think it gave me a food high. Mmmm, mmm, mmmmm. THANK YOU ALL MY LOVED ONES!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why, Thank You, Anonymous Philanthropist!

It's my birthday and I just received a copy of Gourmet magazine ( the first copy of my subscription, as I can see from the mailing label) in the mail. How did you time that so well, good friend? Who are you and how can I thank you enough?

Happy Birthday To Me!!!!!!

Doesn't this look scrumptious? I think it's a fittingly decadent cake for my first 29th birthday.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Isn't She Lovely?

This is my new baby!!!!!!!! I feel that I deserve a new food processor for my final frontier birthday and here she is. God, she is perfect. 1/2 horsepower, minibowl for small jobs...I can't WAIT!!!!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


N. and I went out for dinnner recently and while I was too full for dessert, thankfully N. wasn't and he ordered a really unique and delicious dessert. It was a Napoleon, layered with apples, walnuts and poppy seeds and paired with an English ale ice cream. It was so tasty that I went to buy the ingredients at the store to attempt re-creation. The ice cream, I won't be able to make and wouldn't know how to even if I had the equipment. The beer taste was evident but it had a fantastic, caramel flavor as well. Anyway, I'll take a crack at working with the dreaded phyllo dough and I will keep you posted on the results, coming this weekend!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pasta alla Vodka

This is a pretty simple dish that seems to inspire reverie in many. It's very nice but not something that necessarily wows me. So, I thought perhaps I just haven't had a really standout version of the sauce. I decided to make it for Valentine's Day and I referenced several recipes to create my own. I first looked at Rachael Ray's recipe. I know, I know, she's a bumpkin, but, a blog I read and respect made said recipe and approved. But the recipe didn't appeal to me because, like every single one of her recipes, it called for a decent amount of chicken stock. That sounds totally unnecessary. When doing a quick cooking tomatoe sauce, there's no reason to dilute it or otherwise make it thin and runny. Nope, that one was NOT for me. I read several others; one called for tomato PASTE with no liquid save a shot of vodka and a swirl of cream. I can't even imagine how that would make a sauce. Some called for proscuitto, others for shallots, some included a shot of vodka and still more recommended a whopping cup. To me, I don't really think it's the vodka that makes the sauce but more the velvety texture created by the addition of heavy cream. So i went middle of the road with the vodka, added shallots but no proscuitto and the result was good although I'd like to play around with it more so that I can begin to understand why Ms. Ray dubs this dish "You Won't Be Single For Long Penne alla Vodka."

1 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
1 shallot, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. vodka
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1/2 to 3/4 of a pint of heavy cream, depending on your taste
salt and pepper
fresh basil for the top

Saute the shallots in the butter/oil for three mjinutes, add garlic and cook one more minute. Pour in the vodka and let the alcohol cook out, about two minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and let this simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir the cream in. Toss with whatever pasta you like, although it works well with short pasta like penne and rigatoni. Add basil chiffonade on top. This isn't just a garnish, it really adds to the flavors.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Caution: Read Label Before Consumption

Yes indeed, I have been sick since Sunday. I'll gloss over the details for you. Anyway, I usually avoid pills and syrups and the like but I am so damn miserable that I broke into a stash that was leftover in my medicine cabinet. I like to see what I'm ingesting and was summarily appalled. This stuff is supposed to make me BETTER and this is what I get?

1. FD&C red 40: Why do we need to dye our medicine?
2. Partially hydrogenated soy and cotton oil: Cellulite, awesome.
3. Carnauba wax: Wax? Really? What does that do to my digestive tract?
4. Fumed Silica Gel: Fumed? Is that a euphemism for smoked? Smoke my gouda, smoke my salmon, not my cough suppressant.
5. Alcohol 10%: I prefer alcoholic beverages in non-syrup form, please.
6. High Fructose Corn Syrup: Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and erratic blood sugar levels. Sign me up!
7. HPMC: What the hell is that?

Anyway, I just noticed the expiration date on one of these bottles is 2002, reenforcing what I already thought; this shit is for the birds.

For Suki's Puerto Rican-Themed Valentine Dinner LoveFest

I was very blessed to have a dear friend introduce me to the glory of Puerto Rican cuisine years ago. Cuban food seems to have more cache but I find the food to be a little bland; the base for a lot of Puerto Rican food is an herb called recao. It is also used in Vietnamese cooking and provides a punch that can't be beat. You could substitute cilantro but it really isn't the same. Recao is used to make recaito, which is made of onions, peppers, garlic and of course, recao. If you cook this mixture with lard or pork, it then becomes sofrito.

Anyway, since my formative years, I have been on a quest to perfect the dishes in my Puerto Rican repertoire including but not limited to rice and beans, tostones, pastelillos, flan, pernil, relleno de papas etc etc. This has earned me favorable status among my friends and just yesterday my friend Suki requested my rice and beans recipe to make for her Valentine's dinner, along with PR-style roast pork. Rice and beans may sound like a simple dish but can really be quite complex. Sometimes I make the rice (white, medium grain) and beans separate because it can be awfully finicky to get the right balance of ingredients for the perfect arroz con gandules. Sometimes there is too much moisture and the rice is soggy and lacking in flavor. On the flip side, not enough moisture yields dry and often burnt rice. The perfect rice is fluffy and flavorful, each grain separate from the next and the bottom of the pot creates a well-cooked, chewy bottom known as el pegao. Some people consider this the best part. In any case, I will give my recipe for white rice and beans (easy) and then my recipe for yellow rice (more tenuous). As far as I'm concerned, yellow rice isn't necessarily better. I quite like the white rice and beans separate because I prefer less rice and more beans, the flavor is more concentrated that way. However, yellow rice seems to be the more popular. I almost said more traditional but I had both styles many times in Puerto Rico so go figure. Before you begin, heed these warnings:

1. DO NOT USE BROWN RICE! I like brown rice too but it is totally inappropriate in this dish and will compete with the flavor of the beans.
2. DO NOT USE LONG GRAIN, JASMINE OR BASMATI RICE! Go to the Hispanic section of your market and buy whatever short-medium grain white rice there. I prefer Sello Rojo but that is hard to find so try Goya or Camellia.
2. DO NOT USE BLACK BEANS IF MAKING THE RICE AND BEANS TOGETHER! If you are doing them separate, no problem. But black beans are too moist and will mess up the balance of the rice.
3. RINSE THE RICE! This is not to be picky but you have to wash the starch off the rice or the texture will be gummy.
4. DON'T USE STORE-BOUGHT RECAITO OR SOFRITO! Goya makes this, ready to go from the supermercado. It tastes like nothing. Please take the extra time to make your own or just ask me for some. I've always got some in the freezer.

2 c. Sello Rojo rice, soaked, rinsed and picked over for any grit

3 T. olive oil
1/3 recaito or sofrito*
1/2 onion, diced
1/2 pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 packet Sazon
1 T. Adobo
6-10 green olives and their brine
1/3 can tomato sauce (from the small, 6 oz can. Save the rest to make a dipping sauce for your tostones!)
1 can beans, I like pinto but whatever
3 c. chicken stock

Cook the rice as you usually do.

For the beans, heat oil in a pot and add sofrito/recaito. Cook for a couple of minutes on medium heat. Add the onions, peppers and garlic. Cook for a few more minutes. Add the Sazon and Adobo and stir thoroughly. Deglaze the pot with some of the olive brine and then add the olives. Add tomato sauce and beans and cook about one minute. Finally, add the chicken stock and let the whole thing come to a simmer. Turn the heat down to medium low and let cook for about 45 minutes. You can skimp on the cooking time but then add less stock so the beans aren't too watery. Me though, I like a sauce that has been simmered for a while. I also like to smash some of the beans on the side of the pot and then stir back in to create a sauce with more body. Sometimes I even add an extra half can of beans for that purpose.

Notes: I suppose I am beholden to say that if you use sofrito/recaito, you don't need to add extra peppers, onions and garlic, as that is basically what recaito is. But I don't recommend it. I'm operating under the "more is better" theorem here. I know a lot of people who don't like olives but still put them in the rice for the briny punch they add. Please do this even if you pick them out when it is time to eat. This is also great as a soup, just add more stock. I love the beans so much that even if I make yellow rice, I have to make my beans anyway. Yes, yellow rice with more beans scooped on top. What can I say, me likes fiber.

Yellow Rice with Pigeon Peas or Arroz con Gandules

The only adjustments to make here (ingredient-wise) are:

1. Reduce rice from 2 c. to 1 1/2 c.
2. Reduce water from 3 c. to 2 1/2 c.
3. Use pigeon peas/gandules for your bean selection to be really traditional. If you don't care, neither do I, just no black beans!

The process is the same too, just add the rice to the pot before the stock. OK, here is where everything gets crazy. I always learned with rice that you bring it to a boil, shut the heat to low, cover and don't bother it. This dish challenged everything I know about rice. Stock should cover the rice by about 1 finger knuckle (Yep, it makes no sense but that's how I was taught). Let the stock cook down to level with the rice, about 15 minutes. At that point, turn the rice over so what was on the bottom is now on the top etc. NOW, turn down the heat and cover. Cook for another 10-15 minutes. This really is persnickety, it's best to be with someone in the know with you while doing this. Or just make it separate. I often prefer that anyway.


1 bunch recao-in Hispanic/Asian markets
3 onions
2 green peppers
2 heads garlic

Whiz this up in a food processor and freeze in small containers. This is a good base for a lot of Puerto Rican dishes. If you don't think you'll be making lots of PR food, this is a great start for chicken soup.

Friday, February 8, 2008

In the Land of Rice-A-Roni

Just got back from spending some time in San Francisco and I have lots of updates! I got in Saturday night and, acting on a tip from my neighbor on the plane, headed to a place called Mamacita's in the Marina area. The margaritas were tasty, the guacamole was good but not stellar. We ordered an appetizer of seared day scallops served over corn in a red mole sauce. The scallopes were lovely but the sauce had nothing I could relate to mole and the corn tasted kind of chewy and old. WE also got the shrimp tacos with grilled pineapple-tomatillo salsa. That would have been pretty good except that the pineapple was not ripe. All in all, a nice meal.

Sunday morning, while Nicole caught up on her beauty rest, I headed out to a coffee shop on Fillmore, where I had a cappuccino with great froth (so hard to find, sadly) and a nice, nutty biscotto dipped in chocolate. I had to stave off hunger for a few more hours until lunch. We planned on doing dim sum in Chinatown. It's something I've wanted to do for years and finally had a place to go and a partner to go with. So we hopped aboard the #1 bus, got off on Stockton and walked up Broadway to our favored spot. Nicole claimed she had never seen so many people on the street in San Francisco before, we saw grapefruits the size of my head and HUGE prawns for $3.49/lb. We were overwhelmed before we even got to the restaurant.

Speaking of the restaurant, we walked past 1 million dim sum places but we had several recommendations directing us to the premier dim sum destination, Gold Mountain. In retrospect, I think the name Grease Mountain is more appropriate. The dining room was enormous, packed and bustling. We were ushered to our table and we got seated next to a wonderful couple who translated and pointed and recommended for us. WE had shrimp dumplings and fried shrimp and shrimp suspended in an odd, rice gelatin. Every few seconds, someone would walk by, wheeling a cart and hawking their wares in a sing-song voice. The food wasn't all that remarkable, very heavy and greasy, but the experience was so worth it. My favorite part was when a man wheeled past us with some mystery plate, we asked out neighbor what it was and she said "It's a dessert but it's no good!" and the pushcart vendor said "Oh yes, good, good!" "No, no! No good!" she admonished him, waggling her finger wildy. They continued to haggle the merits of the dish until he slunk away. Maybe that doesn't sound so funny in print but it was damn hilarious to witness.

Next we took off on a several mile hike through downtown that included shopping, gelato, crepes and a voodoo lounge. More on that later.