Archive for February, 2009

When in Rome…Eat Prime Rib

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In college I was always broke and ate very little meat. Ironically, I spent my freshman and sophomore years working at a prime rib restaurant called, of all things, The Gentleman’s Choice. As I couldn’t actually afford the beef dishes we served, I usually ate a free house salad and bread while escaping the cigarette smoke in the kitchen during my breaks. Since serving slabs of prime rib at The Gentleman’s Choice, I have eaten at a prime rib house only twice. This is partially due to the fact that I try to eat only grass-fed beef, and there’s nary a prime rib house that does that, and also because steakhouses aren’t my cup of tea.

My first prime rib experience after waitressing at the Gentleman’s Choice was about ten years ago in Santa Cruz. While visiting with my family, my Dad insisted we all eat at the Hindquarter — yes that is really the name — because, according to Dad, “Nothing else looks good.” I rebelled by ordering fish, which was dry and tasteless. The next occasion was last weekend when I was visiting our friends Mark and Margaret in San Diego and they wanted to use a gift certificate they had won for Red Tracton’s in Del Mar, a 60-year old landmark from the days when Hollywood icons like Bing Crosby and Jimmy Durante came to watch the ponies.

As soon as I entered the building and walked up to the hostess stand next to the bar, I was thrown back to my days serving at The Gentleman’s Choice. The décor was dark, the room smelled like beef and butter, and there were old white retirees everywhere drinking cocktails. The only thing missing were the wafts of cigarette smoke, which I am sure would have been there had it been legal.

Under normal circumstances, I try to purchase and eat only grass-fed beef. But what do you do when you’re faced with a social situation that is in disagreement with your general food philosophy? Do you walk out and say, “Sorry,” or do you stay mum and participate? I suppose the answer to this question depends on how vehemently opposed you are to what’s being served. A vegetarian in my situation most likely would have walked out (and rightly so), but as I eat meat, this seemed a bit extreme. So as I was handed the menu, I thought “when in Rome,” and put my personal beef ideology in a little mental box in the back of my head. This seemed the best thing to do, particularly as I had learned a very important ordering rule years ago.

While driving cross country a year after graduating from college with my dearest childhood friend Margaret and her husband Mark, we stopped in Monahan, Texas for lunch. Margaret’s black curly hair and her husband’s dangling cross earring stuck out in the little diner just as the ten-gallon hats on the male diners would have on Haight Street. As Mark ordered his hamburger, Margaret and I decided on turkey sandwiches. While Mark devoured his juicy all-American meat patty, Margaret and I picked the grayish turkey with a big black vein down the middle from between our sliced bread. Mark looked up and said, “We’re in Texas. Just get the burger.” Words to live by.

It’s easy to be a food snob in a steak house. There is no magic behind the dishes; no culinary expertise; and no tantalizing use of fresh ingredients. There are just large slabs of Grade-A beef (industrial food complex beef at that), lots of butter, and mayonnaise-based salad dressings. But I had learned my lesson in Texas and so realized I should just embrace the situation.

The gift certificate covered the price of two full prime cuts. Just one of those babies could feed a family of eight easily, although Mark and my husband handily finished most of their dinners plus a good portion of the chocolate cake afterward. I opted for the huge iceberg lettuce chunk with blue cheese and a much smaller steak. Did I enjoy my dinner? Not really, and I actually felt a little sick afterward. But did I hate the experience? No, and here’s why.

It’s simply more fun to eat up and drink your wine, than complain or walk out, especially when someone else is using their gift certificate. The Red Tracton’s (or any Gentleman’s Choice equivalent) is not my restaurant of choice, but we there for the great company, not the food. I can pretty much guarantee you that I won’t be eating in another prime rib house anytime soon, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of your past. And sometimes, when in Rome, it just makes sense to get the prime rib.

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Homemade Chocolate Pudding

I posted this article last year on Bay Area Bites, but after making it last night, decided I should list it on this site as well. Chocolate pudding is very easy and fast to make from scratch, so resist the box!
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I’ve been having deep thoughts about pudding lately. It all started when I was watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with my daughters. Twice in the movie, Luna Lovegood refers to eating pudding at a Hogwart’s feast. Every time I heard the word “pudding,” my mouth watered and I knew I had to make some soon.

But what type of pudding? Although Harry Potter takes place in the United Kingdom, land of the bread pudding and baked pudding, I imagined Luna sitting down to a lovely bowl of rich chocolate pudding. I mean, what kid dreams of bread pudding? Well, forget about Luna — I have pudding dreams of my own and they are all creamy and chocolaty.

Once I decided to make pudding, I had a lot of questions. Whole milk or heavy cream? Eggs or no eggs? Nonfat or super fat? The options are endless and I began to feel a little like a puddin’ head thinking about it all. The one thing I knew for sure was that I was going to make it from scratch.

Now before you scoff and say that you don’t have time to make pudding from scratch, let me wag my digital finger at you. Making homemade pudding takes only about five minutes longer than mixing together a box of the instant stuff. Years of watching Jell-O commercials may have convinced you otherwise, but it’s true. Not one of the three recipes I made took more than twelve minutes to cook. Honest. Plus, unlike the boxed variety, you can pronounce all the ingredients, which is always a plus.

Nonfat Pudding

I started my pudding adventure wondering if I could make a pudding with nonfat milk that tasted creamy and rich. I made one from the Cooking Light web site and was sadly disappointed. The pudding was flat in both texture and taste. The wonderful creaminess you get from milk fat was missing and although I used a nice bittersweet chocolate, its nuances were drowned out. After a few bites, my husband and I agreed it wasn’t worth eating so we threw the whole thing out and made ice cream sundaes. If you’re interested in trying this nonfat milk pudding, here’s the recipe, and I wish you better luck.

Whole Milk Pudding Made with Cornstarch

The next night I made a chocolate pudding using a recipe on the New York Times web site by Mark Bittman. I am quite a fan of Mr. Bittman’s and so wanted to try his version. The recipe called for whole milk, sugar, cornstarch, chocolate, and not much else. I used a nice Michel Cluizel Mangaro Lait milk chocolate, because I thought my daughters would like it. When I make this pudding again, however, I will use a bittersweet chocolate instead as the milk chocolate lost its character once it was added to milk and sugar. Don’t get me wrong; it was still lovely with a nice caramel undertone. It just wasn’t chocolaty enough for my tastes. The recipe itself was smooth and rich, although with the occasional gelatinous blob of cornstarch even though I tried to thoroughly whisk it into the cold milk. Here’s the recipe. If you’d like to make a first-rate pudding and don’t want to deal with eggs, this is the one for you.

Custard Pudding

The final pudding would actually be considered a custard by some, although for me it had the best flavor of the bunch and seemed the most pudding-like. I used egg yolks, whole milk, cornstarch, bittersweet chocolate, and a few other minor ingredients. After looking at about fifteen custard and pudding recipes, I ended up cobbling this one together on my own as the others seemed to use either too many egg yolks or called for heavy cream, while I wanted to use milk. Others required a double boiler, which seemed like a lot of work for what is supposed to be a simple dessert. This pudding was the most time intensive, but it still took under 12 minutes to make from start to finish. The texture was velvety; the taste complex yet balanced. I used a combination of cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate, melting them in at different times to give the pudding a fuller chocolaty flavor. I used a nice cocoa powder along with some Grenada Organic Dark Chocolate. This one definitely hit the spot.

I asked some friends over for a blind taste test and all agreed that although the New York Times recipe was quite good, the custard pudding was superior. We felt the Times recipe was a great choice for parents who wanted to make good and fast pudding for kids, but that the custard pudding had better consistency and flavor. One of my friends called it a pudding for grownups, which seemed to sum it up nicely.

So, please, get rid of the Jell-O box and try some homemade pudding. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy and fast it is to make, and much happier with the results.

Velvety Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding

Makes 2 – 4 servings

Ingredients

2 large egg yolks

½ cup sugar

3 Tbsp corn starch

Dash of salt

2 Tbsp good cocoa powder

2 cups whole milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 Tbsp butter

3 ounces finely chopped bittersweet chocolate

Preparation

  1. Heat the milk on medium-low heat until it starts to steam with small bubbles around the edge. Turn off the heat.
  2. Whisk egg yolks with sugar in a bowl until the mixture is a light yellow color.
  3. Add the corn starch, cocoa, and salt to the egg mixture and whisk thoroughly, making sure there are no lumps.
  4. Add about a half cup of the warmed milk to the egg mixture, whisking vigorously to temper the eggs.
  5. Add the egg mixture to the milk and incorporate thoroughly.
  6. Cook on medium-low just until the mixture starts to bubble. Be sure to frequently stir or the pudding will start to burn at the bottom.
  7. Lower the heat to simmer and cook for five minutes, stirring often.
  8. Once the pudding is thickened, turn off the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla.
  9. After the butter has melted, add in the chopped chocolate and stir until it is thoroughly melted and incorporated.
  10. Divide into serving bowls, or place in one large bowl.
  11. Cover with plastic wrap, being sure to let it sit directly on top of the pudding to avoid a skin forming.
  12. Refrigerate for at least two hours.
  13. Serve with whipped cream.

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I Heart Pea Shoots

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Sure, I love chocolate truffles and Valentine’s Day goodies, but February has another sweet treat: pea shoots. If you haven’t tried these lovely greens before, you’re in luck because they’re all over the farmer’s market right now. And, at $1 or $2 a bag, you can feel the love.

Pea shoots are simply the leaves of the pea plant. But that description doesn’t do them justice. The leaves are bright green and succulent, with accompanying tendrils that curl up like wavy Mohawks and have a subtle sugary flavor that is delicious both raw and cooked. Like peas, pea shoots have a sweet crispness that goes beautifully with just about anything. They have a pleasant sweet pea flavor that works well on its own, or as an accent with meats, pastas, or beans. Some things I like to do with pea shoots are:

  • · Use as greens in a salad
  • · Incorporate into omelets or frittatas
  • · Include in soups as you would spinach or chard
  • · Stuff inside chicken breasts or flank steak with lemon zest and garlic
  • · Mix with pastas

On Saturday, I was so excited pea shoots were in season, I bought two batches at the farmer’s market. The first night, I made pasta with pea shoots and crumbled bacon, and then the next night we had a pea shoot salad with cured chorizo, Marcona almonds, couscous, and lentils. The saltiness of both the bacon and chorizo nicely accented the natural sweet flavor of the pea shoots, as did the Marcona almonds and Parmesan.

When cooking pea shoots, be sure not to oversteam them as they’ll lose some of their flavor and texture if they’re cooked too long. I like to toss them into a very hot pan with a little olive oil so they crisp up a bit before they cook down. If eating raw, make sure you thoroughly trim off the woody ends, and then dress as a salad green. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

Below are the recipes for the dishes I made this week with my pea shoots. Both are easy and relatively fast to make. If you’re looking for further inspiration, I found a site called <a href=”http://www.peashoots.com/”&gt;pea shoots.com</a>, which has a number of eye-catching recipes that made my mouth water. I haven’t had time to cook any yet, but am especially looking forward to trying the pea shoot and smoked bacon soup (yes, I know, again with the bacon); although the pea shoot bubble and squeak also looks enticing.

So if you’re looking for a unique Valentine’s gift for your sweetheart, how about a bouquet of pea shoots?

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Pea Shoot Salad with Chorizo, Almonds, Lentils, and Couscous

Makes 2 large or 4 small salads

Salad

Ingredients:

1 large bunch of pea shoots (washed with ends trimmed)

1/2 cup cooked lentils, white beans, or fava beans

1/3 cup roughly-chopped fennel

1/3 cup cured chorizo or soppresetta, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1/3 cup Spanish Marcona almonds

1/3 cup cooked couscous

1 Tbsp chopped parsley

1 Tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste


Dressing

Ingredients:

Juice from one medium Meyer lemon or 1 1/2 Eureka lemons

Zest from one lemon

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste


Preparation:

1. Chop pea sprouts into 1-inch pieces, discarding large tough stems, and set aside.

2. Heat olive oil in a medium sauté pan and then add the chopped fennel.

3. After the fennel begins to soften, add the beans and parsley and then toss together, adding salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

4. Lay pea shoots onto plates and then evenly scatter beans, couscous, chorizo or soppresetta, and almonds onto each plate.

5. Drizzle dressing on top of each plate and serve.

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Pea Shoot Pasta Sautéed with Bacon and Lemon Zest

Makes 4 – 6 servings

Ingredients:

1 bunch of pea shoots, cleaned, dried and cut into 3-inch long pieces

2 cloves garlic

1 lb cooked pasta

3 Tbsp olive oil

1 Tbsp lemon zest

1 ladle of hot pasta water

2 -3 slices cooked bacon or 1/4 cup cooked cubed pancetta

Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste


Preparation:

1. Clean and dry your pea shoots and remove any hard stems. Cut shoots into 3-inch pieces.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet or wok until oil starts to sizzle.

3. Smash and then chop garlic into medium pieces and add to the olive oil.

4. Add pea shoots and lemon zest and sauté for about 3-5 minutes, or until pea shoots start to wilt.

5. Stir in cooked pasta and pasta water.

6. Crumble bacon and add to the pasta.

7. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil on top along with a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

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Recall Free No-Bake and Baked Granola Bars

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Peanut butter is the ultimate kid food. From sandwiches made with little jammy hands to apple slices dipped into a creamy mess, peanut butter makes up its own kid food group. Unfortunately, right now we are in the midst of a major peanut butter recall. It’s on the news all the time and grocery store shelves have gaping holes where peanut butter items once sat. Even dog treats are being recalled.

But families should take heart. Except for a few brands of peanut butter I have never heard of (such as King Nut and Parnell’s Pride), the recall is mainly for processed foods made with a mass-produced peanut butter paste. According to the FDA’s web site, “Major national brands of jarred peanut butter found in grocery stores are not affected by the PCA recall.” This is why jars of peanut butter still sit ready for purchase at your local store. From Jif and Peter Pan to organic creamy and crunchy, those jars are still available and deemed safe by the FDA for consumption.  If you don’t believe me, listen to Dr. Stephen Sundlof of the FDA.

But what do you do if your kids love peanut butter granola bars — which are definitely on the recall list –like mine do? Each week I break my no-trash lunch rule and buy individually wrapped Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter Chewy Coated & Drizzled Granola Bars because my kids just can’t get enough of them. They are the preferred treat for snack time after recess, and I like that they give my daughters both protein and carbs, which in turn gives them the energy to continue sitting and learning until lunch arrives. Yes, I hate the wrappers, but what’s one little wrapper (each), I ask myself?

Well, those granola bars disappeared from our pantry and my daughters lunches after the recall was announced. I tried to substitute their favorite treat with everything from yogurt and granola, to blueberry breakfast bars (more wrappers!) and extra fruit. After a couple of weeks of having my kids doggedly ask each morning if they could have their favorite peanut butter granola bar — “Is the recall over Mommy?” — I gave up and decided to make them myself. I had a large jar of organic peanut butter sitting in my refrigerator. We’d made our way through about a 1/3 of it by the time the recall was announced, so I knew it was safe as we’d all been eating it and no one had gotten sick. Plus it wasn’t on the recall list.

As I no longer had a box of the beloved Trader Joe’s bars, I had no idea what they contained, so struck out on my own. I opted for using granola — you can purchase some or make your own — to get a nice crunch and added an equal amount of puffed rice for added crunch and also a little chewiness. I really wanted a nice nutty flavor, so recommend crunch peanut butter if you have it. And, because I needed the whole thing to stick together, I threw in a healthy dollop of gooey honey. Finally I added some chocolate chips, because who doesn’t love chocolate with peanut butter?

The resulting bar was, according to my husband, hands-down better than the store-bought variety. My daughters, on the other hand, thought it tasted almost as good. The proof, however, was in the fact that they each devoured their bar and then asked for more. If you are avoiding peanut products all together, you can still enjoy this recipe with cashew or almond butter.

I then began to wonder how difficult it would be to make baked granola bars. I loosely based my first batch on my Nut and Fruit Oatcakes recipe, but without the leftover steel-cut oats, it was a bit dry. After adding some corn syrup and also honey, the recipe turned out moist with a nice texture. Unlike the first recipe, I think this one tastes better with almond butter, so you don’t even need to worry about the peanut butter recall. If you prefer peanut butter, however, that would also work just as well.

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No-Bake Peanut, Cashew, or Almond Butter Granola Bars

Makes 12 Bars

Ingredients:

1 cup granola

1 cup dried puffed rice (such as Rice Krispies)

1/2 cup chunky peanut, cashew, or almond butter

1/3 cup honey

1/2 cup chopped slightly salted peanuts, cashews, or almonds

1/2 cup chocolate chips

Oil spray

Preparation:

1. Mix granola, puffed rice, nuts and chocolate chips in a large mixing bowl.

2. In a separate, microwave-safe bowl, combine the peanut or almond butter and honey and then microwave for 30 seconds. If you don’t want to use a microwave, you can heat these in a pot  on the stove on low.

3. Thoroughly mix the peanut butter and honey after it is warmed and add to the granola mixture.

4. Stir until all the granola and puffed rice is evenly coated with the peanut butter and honey.

5. Spray a 9 x 9 square pan with oil.

6. Press the granola/peanut butter mixture into the pan, making sure it is even on all sides.

7. Refrigerate for at least an hour, but preferably longer, so the bars set.

8. Cut the bars into four rows and then make one horizontal cut down the middle so you end up with 12 bars.

9. Keep bars refrigerated until ready to eat.

Note: Some whole peanuts are on the recall list, so be sure the ones you purchase are safe to eat.

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Dried Fruit and Nut Granola Bars

Makes 18 – 24 bars

Ingredients:

2 cups oats

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

2 eggs

1/2 cup almond butter

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup honey

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1/4 cup canola oil

1/2 cup walnuts, almonds or cashews

1/2 cup dried cranberries or raisins

1/2 cup dried apricots or peaches

1/4 cup sunflower seeds

Preparation:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees

2. Mix oats, wheat flour, baking powder, nuts and dried fruit in a large mixing bowl.

3. Mix the eggs, peanut butter, brown sugar, honey and oil using the paddle whip in an electric mixer.

4. Mix in the dried ingredients.

5. Line a 13 x 9 inch pan with parchment paper sprayed with oil or just spray with oil.

6. Press the oat mixture into the pan, making sure it’s even on all sides.

7. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.

8. Cool and then cut into bars to serve.

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