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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Pot Luck Picnic

Summer is here. It's time to grill. It's time to pack a lunch and have a picnic. This Fourth of July is a model of our summer dining. We've planned a pot luck picnic with friends. We'll meet at 6:00pm in the park across the street from the high school football field, share dishes, hang out and wait until it gets dark (usually between 9:15pm and 9:30pm) when the fireworks begin.
In the morning I advance the picnic. Around 10:00am, I lay out half a dozen blue plastic tarps to mark where we'll assemble in the park. Everyone knows to bring a blanket, food and beverages to eat and enough extra to share, beach chairs and  sweaters because it does get cold in the evening.

As the sun goes down and the street lights are dimmed, like sunflowers tracking the sun, we'll turn our beach chairs toward the football field. The fireworks begin slowly, grow in intensity, seem to stop and then rise again in a drawn out cacophony of explosions, whizzing skyrockets and overlapping designs of light. Accompanying each thump of the mortars sending fireworks overhead is an explosion which in turn is accompanied by wow's, whoa's, oooh's and aaah's from our friends and the crowd that fills the park.
As quickly as the fireworks end, before the smoke has cleared, the blankets and blue tarps are folded, the picnic baskets are packed up, trash is collected and everything is loaded into cars that will then join a slow moving serpentine cavalcade of bumper-to-bumper traffic that extends the evening another half hour or sometimes longer.
The first part of the evening is such fun. We bring favorite dishes that are easy to transport and share. Picnic food has always been my favorite kind of dishes. Potato salad, roasted vegetable salad, carrot salad, deviled eggs, fried chicken, spicy ginger-lime chicken wingskosher dill pickles, Moroccan vegetable pickles, fresh fruit salad, tossed green salads, salt boiled green beans tossed with roasted hazelnuts in a simple vinaigrette, roasted beet salad, peanut brittle, a fig tartflourless chocolate cake..... The list goes on and on.
And the sharing is so much fun. Some friends who love to cook, bring their favorites. Others use the picnic as a time to pick up a selection of cheeses, olives, crackers and fresh bread to share. I'll bring the sautéed pistachios with citrus rind bits that are so delicious as a snack. My wife doesn't enjoy anchovies so this is a time when I can make deviled eggs with anchovies and capers because I have friends to share them with.
For dessert, I wish there was a way I could heat hot fudge for hot fudge sundaes with caramelized almond slivers. That's a little too impractical for a picnic so that particular dish will have to wait until we're home.

When we travel, I use the same approach to eating in a car or on an airplane or train. Pack a meal as if you are going on a picnic is a great way to turn the trip into a culinary feast.

So, all the best for Fourth of July, summer picnics and long distance travel.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Make Dad An Omelette For Father's Day

When I was nine years old, my parents told me it would be fun if I made them breakfast in bed every Sunday. I was such a geek, I didn't know they were pulling a Tom Sawyer on me.

At first I practiced with something easy--scrambled eggs. I worked up to over-easy eggs and was very proud when I could plate the eggs without breaking or overcooking the yolk.

My sister, Barbara, didn't like to cook. She could be coaxed into helping me with some of the prep, but she wasn't happy about it.

In time my mother felt I was ready to take on the El Dorado of breakfasts: an omelet.

The first time I had one, I thought it was so great. The outer crispness contrasted with the custard-softness on the inside.

My mom taught me to use a big pat of butter to prevent the omelet from sticking to the pan. She made savory fillings, using a tasty piece of sausage, some mushrooms, spinach, and a bit of cheese. At times she'd switch gears and put something sweet inside, like fresh strawberries she'd cooked down into a compote.

For Father's Day one year she showed me how to make my dad's favorite filling: crisp bacon, sauteed potatoes, and cheddar cheese. Because he had an Eastern European sweet tooth, he liked his bacon dusted with sugar.

Over the years I refined what my mom had taught me. I found that sauteing the ingredients added layers of flavor and got rid of excess water.

On my limited student's budget in college, I learned how omelets could be a breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I could make the filling out of any favorite ingredients, even left-overs.

Sauteed sausages with potatoes and cheddar cheese. Steamed asparagus with herbed goat cheese. Sauteed spinach, mushrooms, zucchini, onions, and roasted tomatoes with Gruyere. Sauteed chicken livers, caramelized onions, and mushrooms.

Chopped raw tomatoes, sauteed spinach, onions, and garlic make a delicious vegetarian filling, add sauteed ham and cheese and you'll make a carnivore happy. Even a simple omelet filled with sauteed parsley, shallots, and garlic with Parmesan cheese was elegant and delicious.

The combinations are limitless.

The only difficult part of omelet-making is flipping one half on top and then sliding it onto a plate so it looks plump and neat. Using a good non-stick pan makes that easy. I still add butter to the pan, but it's very little and strictly for flavor.

Another refinement I'm proud of is a one-egg omelet where the spotlight is entirely on the filling: Eggsellent: A One-Egg Omelet That's All About Flavor.

My Father's Favorite Omelet

Traditionally what's inside an omelet is hidden by the fold. Sometimes I make them that way, sometimes, I leave the filling where it can be seen.

My father didn't like surprises so I always left his open so he could see what he was eating.

Yield 1 serving
Time 20 minutes

Ingredients

2 bacon slices
1 small Yukon Gold potato or 2 small fingerling potatoes, peeled, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons yellow onion or shallot, finely chopped
1/4 cup parsley, washed, mostly leaves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon sweet butter
2 farm fresh eggs
1 tablespoon cream, half-and-half, milk, or skim milk
1/4 cup freshly grated cheddar cheese

Method

Saute the bacon in a small frying pan (not the nonstick pan) until crisp, remove and drain on a paper towel. Set aside. Pour off the fat.

Add the olive oil to the pan, put on a medium flame and saute the potato, onions, and parsley until lightly browned. Remove and set aside.

Put the eggs and milk into a mixing bowl. Using a fork or wisk, breat the eggs until they foam.

Melt the butter in the nonstick pan, pour in the beaten eggs. Let the eggs begin to set. Place the sauteed vegetables on one half of the omelet. Sprinkle the grated cheese and crumble the bacon on top of the vegetables.

Using a rubber spatula so you don't scratch the surface of the nonstick pan, flip the side that doesn't have the filling on top of the side that does.

Carefully slide the omelet onto a plate and serve.

Variations

Before serving dust the top of the omelet with finely chopped Italian parsley or crumbled crispy bacon or cayenne pepper

Spread a thin layer of strawberry jam or a fruit compote on the top of the omelet before serving

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Fresh Fruit is Appearing in the Farmers Markets, Time to Make Fruit Infused Vodka

Easy to make and colorful, fruit infused vodkas are a fun way to celebrate summer. Soft fruit like berries adds flavors quickly. Hard fruit like cherries takes a bit longer. Limoncello, the classic Italian liqueur, uses lemon peels to flavor vodka and takes many months.
Last year at this time I read an article about umeshu, Japanese plum wine. Marukai, a Japanese market, with a store in West Los Angeles on Pico near Bundy, mails a magazine-style newsletter with the store's weekly specials. The opening article each month has an explainer about a particular Japanese food or cooking style.

The article last year described how to turn ume (Japanese plums) into umeshu. The process was simple. Buy ume, wash them, pull out the little stems, place in a large glass jar, add Japanese rock sugar and a large bottle of vodka, put in a cool dark place and come back in a year.
Now I was on the hunt for ume which have a short season. I found them at Marukai and downtown at a farmers market near the Los Angeles Public Library Main Branch.
Because I had made Limoncello, the idea of waiting a year seemed so cool. I don't know why but waiting that long appealed to me. And the added benefit of putting out very little effort added to what seemed like fun.
When we visited Yabu, down the block on West Pico from Marukai, I told the waitstaff we see all the time that I was going to make umeshu. They loved the idea. It turned out umeshu is a liquor traditionally made by grandmothers.

I brought them a bottle of the umeshu and every time we came in during the year they asked if it was time to drink the umeshu. Not yet. Last month it was a year. Time to celebrate.

What they also told me was that after a year bathing in the vodka, the hard green ume would become sweetly edible.
Serving the fruit with the liqueur is a nice touch. Kind of an alcoholic fruit punch. I wrote about making sangria with chopped up fruit, so I'm continuing the idea with umeshu.

For Zester Daily I wrote about how to make cherry infused vodka and umeshu. The recipes are there. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

In Praise of Eggs

A healthy, efficient source of protein, eggs are delicious.

Growing up, my mother used to take my sister and myself to the beach for picnics. We would spend the day at Will Rodgers State Beach in Santa Monica. My mother would sit on one blanket talking with a friend. My sister, Barbara, and I would dig holes in the sand and build our version of "castles" by filling plastic buckets with wet sand and turning them over quickly.
For lunch my mother always made our favorites. Fried chicken, hard boiled eggs and egg salad sandwiches. I guess it must be a truth of the human experience that what we eat as children is burned deeply into our psyches. Sometimes negatively (I won't go near calf's liver, which my mom used to serve on a regular basis) but mostly positively.
More often than not, comfort food means food we ate as a child that made us feel all taken care of. I enjoy eggs so many ways. Hardboiled, sliced and topped with anchovies or 1000 island dressing.
Deviled with a filling of anchovies, parsley and capers.
Egg salad flavored with bacon, charred corn kernels and parsley. Coddled in Caesar salad dressing richly flavored with anchovies and Tabasco sauce. One egg omelets. Egg white cookies with hazelnuts and orange glaze.
This weekend a friend shared one of her favorite eggs. She gave me a half dozen Apricot Lane Farms eggs she picked up at Farm Shop in Brentwood. Wildly popular, the eggs sell out quickly.
What makes farm fresh eggs so special is the bright yellow yolk. Visually impressive, the yolk is sweet, thick and custardy. Lily Farms eggs, sold at the Santa Monica Farmers Market (Wednesday and Saturday) and at the Palisades Sunday market, have a similar quality.

This morning I had one of the Apricot Lane eggs for breakfast.

I think one of the best ways to enjoy quality eggs is to make a fried egg. Personally I like over-easy eggs, but sunny side up would be good too. I fried the egg in a pat of sweet butter in a non-stick pan and served it on a slice of toasted Orowheat Oatnut Bread with Bonne Maman Strawberry Preserves and Pulgra unsalted butter.
Simple. Easy. Delicious. The pictures tell the story.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Summer Travel - Time to Plan a Picnic at 30,000 Feet




When you board an airplane and walk past the first-class passengers settling into their double-wide seats, it’s difficult to avoid feeling like a second-class citizen. The issue isn’t only personal space. As the curtain closes behind the lucky few, you know the crew is preparing a nonstop feast for those with plenty of disposable income.
You can almost see the French cheeses and crackers on a tray with glasses of bubbly Champagne, an opulent first course meant to stimulate the appetite before a gourmet entree — chateaubriand, perhaps, or line-caught salmon with roasted asparagus. If you listen closely, you can hear the flight attendant whispering to leave room for the hot fudge sundae with fresh whipped cream and toasted almonds.
In coach, nothing is free. Sure, for now the sodas, water, and coffee are still complimentary, but if you’re hungry, have your credit card ready. Alaska Airline’s cheeseburger with chips or the Chicken Bánh Mi Sandwich is a relative bargain at $7, but Delta charges $9.99 for a grilled chicken wrap, and a vending-machine-type pastrami and cheese (cheese on pastrami?) sandwich is $9.99 on American Airlines. Delta’s “Eats Treats” is a choice of three snack boxes with packets of easy to eat chips, cookies,  cheese spread, nuts and dried fruit for $5.99-$8.99.
You’ll do a lot better if you brown bag it and pretend you’re on a picnic.

Choose food with staying power

Pack food that travels well: trail mix, your own tea bags and sunflower seeds. Fresh fruit is good, but avoid berries that bruise easily. Carrot and celery sticks are great, as are sandwiches. One caveat: Remember that you can only take 3 ounces of any liquid through airport security, so go easy on the salad dressing or condiments you bring.

Assemble sandwiches carefully

Sandwiches are an easy-to-eat option for in-flight meals because everyone gets to choose what they want. There are an infinite number of combinations from ham and cheese on rye to grilled shiitake mushroom and watercress sandwich for vegetarians. Meat eaters in the family can go crazy and build a feast of turkey breast, salami and provolone on deli rye.
To keep your bread pristine, put the mayo or mustard (as well as tomatoes or lettuce) between the meat slices, not directly on the bread. Or, for really long flights, wrap the bread, meat and cheese in plastic wrap sealed in Ziploc bags and assemble the sandwich with condiment packets while you’re flying.
Avoid fillings that might disturb your fellow passengers. Overly messy food or condiments, like chopped liver and garlic paste are a bit too aromatic for an airplane’s close quarters.

Keep it fun for the kids

If kids like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stop at a camping supply store and pick up a couple of refillable plastic tubes. The kids can choose their favorite peanut butter and jam and pre-fill the tubes at home. Now they have something to look forward to on the plane.

A salad bar in the air

Make carrot, potato or pasta salad at home and pack it in plastic containers. Keep a green salad fresh by assembling it when you’re ready to eat. (A tip: You can pick up a couple of the empty salad dressing containers at your grocery store’s salad bar.) At home, give everyone the chance to pack their favorite salad fixings. Besides lettuce or arugula, bring chopped tomatoes, scallions, croutons, olives, hardboiled egg slices, crumbled cheese, or carrot rounds — those salad-dressing containers work well for these items, too.
Want to make your salad even more delicious? Try this simple vinaigrette. Just heat ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar over a low flame until it’s reduced to a teaspoon, then mix it together with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. The reduced balsamic adds depth and natural sweetness to the dressing.

Let your deli do the work

To glam up your meal, nothing says classy like a charcuterie plate and nothing is easier to prepare. Pick up a selection of favorite meats, pâtés, cheeses, and a small baguette or a selection of rolls at your favorite deli. Bring along some olives, a few cornichons — those tart French pickles — and a packet of Dijon mustard, and you won’t care what the first-class passengers are eating.

Celebrate your sweet tooth

For dessert, go wild and stop at your favorite bakery. Fresh fruit tarts don’t travel well, but cookies, muffins, scones and even eclairs do quite nicely if packed in plastic containers, like the ones used at the deli or the lidded containers sold by Ziploc and Glad.

Don’t forget the basics

Bring paper plates, napkins and plastic utensils so you can feast in style. A plain kitchen towel makes a perfect airplane tray tablecloth and helps with spills. Pack everything in plastic containers. Be a good neighbor and carry plastic bags for easy clean up so you don’t leave any trash behind. Take along sea salt and freshly ground pepper in empty 35mm film canisters (remember those?) or even the plastic containers used for prescription medication.

Why we love flying

With all the inconveniences, we easily forget that flying is a manmade miracle. Think about it, a hundred-plus people and all their luggage powering through the sky above the highest clouds. Amazing. If only we didn’t feel so claustrophobically uncomfortable, we could return to the wonder we felt as kids when we pressed our noses against the window and looked down at the earth below.
We can’t regain that lost innocence, but enjoying a delicious home-prepared meal, maybe we can reconnect with the fun of flying. A really good sandwich, some olives, and a crisp Fuji apple from the farmers market can do that for you.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Get Ready for Summer with Sangria Fruit Salad

When I was served a glass of sangria in a bar in San Sebastián, a small resort town on the coast of Northern Spain, I loved the way fresh fruit added flavor to the wine. Fortified with brandy and  sugar, sangria goes well with small sandwiches, salads and snacks.

Visit Spain and you'll see sangria pitchers wide at the base and pinched at the spout so when poured, the wine not the fruit fills the glass.

The result is a wine beverage that carries memories of the fruit but not the fruit itself. Sitting in that small bar, enjoying a relaxed afternoon, I wondered at this exclusion. Why keep the fruit out of the glass?
When peaches, apples, limes and oranges go into a sangria, they are sliced but not peeled. The thought that played around in my head was why not peel the fruit and cut everything into spoon sized pieces? Doing that would allow the wine and fruit to be served together. 

Place a dozen on a tray, with an espresso spoon in each glass and your guests will enjoy an appetizer and cocktail in one.

Sangria Fruit Salad

Using a bottle of quality wine to make sangria is a waste. The same goes for the brandy. Because so many of the flavors will come from other sources, select a drinkable, inexpensive red wine and brandy. Supermarkets and Trader Joe's sell good wines and brandies at a low price that work well. For the wine, I like Merlot, but the choice is entirely up to you. If you prefer white wine, fumé blanc and chardonnay are good. 
Use firm and ripe fruit that is in season. Stone fruit like cherries, peaches and nectarines, grapes, oranges, limes, strawberries, Fuji apples and pears work well. 

Cut up and add the fruits just before serving so they don't become soggy by absorbing too much wine.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

1 750 ml bottle red wine
1/2 cup brandy
1/4 cup white granulated sugar
Juice of one lemon or lime
3 oranges, preferably Valencia
2 Fuji apples, washed, peeled, cut into quarter sized cubes
2 white nectarines, washed, peeled, cut into quarter sized cubes
6 large strawberries, washed, stems removed

Directions

In a large pitcher, mix together the wine, brandy, sugar and lemon juice. Chill in the refrigerator. 

Using a sharp knife, peel the oranges, removing all the peel together with the rind. Hold the peeled oranges over a bowl to catch all the juice. Cut the orange sections free from the membrane. When all the sections have been removed, squeeze the membrane to capture the last bit of delicious juice.

Just before serving, add the orange sections, orange juice and cut up strawberries, apples and nectarines. Stir well.

Use a ladle to fill glasses with a good amount of the fruit. Top off with the sangria. Place an espresso spoon in each glass.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Spring in New York, Time to Explore Lower Manhattan and Eat at the Food Courts in Brookfield Place

Friends in New York talked about the weather all winter. Between ice, snow, rain and cold temperatures, the last winter was memorable for being unpleasant.

Now, temperatures have risen and cold weather is a distant memory. Flowers are blooming. The grass in Central Park is green. God's in Heaven and all's right with the world. This week New York is actually warmer than Los Angeles!

On a recent trip to the city, we enjoyed the good weather. We walked miles around the city each day. Thanks to the health app on the iPhone 6 I can track how many miles I walked. One day that was almost 8 miles. So much fun.

I visited with friends and took foodie-tours in different parts of town. I stopped at the Met (the Metropolitan Museum of Art) to check out the amazing art in the special exhibit of Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky.
I cooked a couple of meals for our friends, shopping at the Fairway Market on the upper west side (Broadway and 74th Street) and had a day revisiting favorite restaurants around the city like the Vietnamese Nha Trang One Restaurant (87 Baxter Street, NYC 10013, 212/233-5948)  in Chinatown to have the salt and pepper shrimp and to eat at a new restaurant, Mission Cantina (172 Orchard St., New York, NY 10002, 212/254-2233) south of Houston on the Lower East Side.
I had walked past the restaurant several times without investigating, assuming it was just another wanna-be New York City Mexican restaurant. A good friend showed me the error of my ways. The wildly colorful, very small Mission Cantina is a very interesting mash up of a restaurant.
Vietnamese dishes are served for breakfast and Mexican-ish dishes during lunch and dinner.  We had Mexican-style dishes for lunch. They were unlike anything I had eaten in LA. The flavors were jazz-riffs rather than representations of traditional Mexican dishes like mole.

In the morning, I loved the Vietnamese duck and scallion congee topped with a fried egg and served with an enormous shrimp baguette with deep fried whole peanuts and mashed garlic. So good. What an amazing way to begin the day.
I spent most of one day with another friend in Lower Manhattan at Ground Zero where most of the public areas are open. One Trade Center dominates lower Manhattan as did the Twin Towers it replaced. At the 9/11 Memorial, cascading water disappears into a dark cavern, the perimeter above is inscribed with the names of those who died.
People take selfies against the memorial and bend backwards to frame a shot of One Trade Center to include the very top.
Construction continues on the east side of the area but the area to the west is now open to the Hudson. On the ground floor of Brookfield Place (before 9/11, the World Financial Center) a broad patio faces the water. Two food courts inside look out into a large atrium.
Le District opened in the spring. Wanting to be a French version of Mario Batali's Eataly, the shops in Le District offer a variety of specialty products that will stimulate a Parisian sense memory.
Affordably priced, inside the market you can buy cookies, crepes, strong freshly brewed coffee, sandwiches on crusty rolls, rotisserie chickens, croissants, cheeses, charcuterie and fresh meat, fish and poultry.
Hudson Eats on the second floor is a large food court. Light pours in through tall windows facing the river and a patio planted with trees. While downstairs focuses on the French experience, upstairs you can range the world in search of culinary treats, including pizza, hamburgers, Thai dishes, sandwiches, baked goods, sushi, barbecue, Mexican food and freshly made salads.
With so many choices, a good friend was my guide. We chose Texas style fatty brisket with cole slaw,  cucumber pickles and baked beans from the Mighty Quinn and an order of pork and chive dumplings from Northern Tiger.



They were as different as dishes could be. They were both delicious. Each in its own way, perfectly prepared. Moist where moist was needed. Crisp where crisp was wanted.
Hudson Eats is definitely worth a stop when you are near the 9/11 Memorial or visiting Wall Street.