Sunday, September 27, 2009

Almond-Herb Pesto Pasta with Artichoke and Tomato

Sunday, September 27, 2009

It's been a long time since I've let so many days go by without blogging, even if it's just a little something, like one of my obsessive Twilight-related posts or a peek at a new movie trailer I've loved. This time, however, I can not blame it on poor time management or a busy social calendar. Instead, I'm in the throes of coping with a family crisis that has been nothing short of a mind-numbing shock, the kind of thing that knocks you off your feet, sucks the air from your chest, and wrenches your heart.

While the crisis is far from over, part of me cannot help but seek comfort, however selfishly, in the routine and normalcy of daily life. In truth, it's probably a good thing-tales of the mundane or daily minutiae can be a welcome relief from medicinal issues and treatment concerns.

Thus, my first offering after this long hiatus is a light, refreshing Rachael Ray recipe. I made it almost a month ago, and found it to be a perfect summery bowl of pasta, an homage to the end of summer. Or, at least the end of summer in more seasonal places, not here in California where the sun literally always shines. I ate the leftovers for several days, and even sent a tiny bag of salt-sprinkled leftover cherry tomatoes with my husband's lunch. Delicious, and even virtuous!

Almond-Herb Pesto Pasta with Artichoke and Tomato, from Every Day with Rachael Ray, August 2009

Salt and pepper
1 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1/4 cup tarragon leaves
1 large clove garlic
One 14-ounce can artichoke hearts in water, or artichoke bottoms, chopped or thinly sliced
1 pound penne rigate pasta
2/3 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino-romano cheese
1/4 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup EVOO
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 cup ricotta cheese

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil, salt it, add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving a ladle of pasta cooking water.
2. While the pasta is working, using a food processor, puree the parsley, parmigiano-reggiano, vegetable stock, almonds, tarragon, mint, and garlic; season with salt and pepper. With the machine on, drizzle in the EVOO.
3. In a serving bowl, combine the artichoke hearts and pesto. Add the reserved pasta cooking water, then stir in the pasta and season with salt and pepper. In a bowl, season the tomatoes with salt.
4. Serve the pasta with the tomatoes and ricotta for mixing in.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Weekend haunt

Saturday, September 12, 2009

For the past three weekends, my SH and I have stuffed our trunk with piles of brightly colored towels and backpacks stocked with books and sunscreen and driven along the winding road into the mountains which lead the way to Santa Cruz. Our beach of choice is not in Santa Cruz, and because of its perfection for our purposes, shall remain an undisclosed location. We stumbled upon it one cool spring weekend, on a trip to Monterey. A wide expanse of plush sand, set against towering sea cliffs, facing perfectly formed waves that toss and foam onto the shore...unimaginably beautiful.

While we managed to get away to the beach once or twice during the summer, the past month has seen a steady addiction to its stunning shores begin to grow and develop. We found a shorter, even more scenic route, which shaves off some time on sunny, more popular weekend days. I've worn the same thing for three consecutive weekends, tossing my favorite long Old Navy tank tops and lightweight roll-up cargo pants over my swimsuit, and my beauty routine (already pathetically short to begin with) has consisted of a tiny smattering of mascara and Benetint to go along with a heavy smearing of sunscreen. We're now used to packing our picnics, varying the menu from peanut butter sandwiches to delicious corn and black bean salad. We always stick with the same side of the beach, and have learned how far back to place our towels to avoid getting soaked by an aggressive high tide.

We were thrilled to discover that while our newly discovered beach wasn't deserted, it could hardly be called crowded. Even over Labor Day weekend, we had a perfectly manageably and roomy section of sand to ourselves. We cavorted in the waves, and while I will admit that the water is fairly icy, I cannot deny the exhilarating feeling that ensues from frolicking in it. Not only does the water feel remarkably fresh and clean, but you feel a sense of accomplishment upon realizing that you can actually remain in frigid Pacific waters more than ten seconds. My mother-in-law and I were amazed at the wealth of sea creatures to be encountered: live sand dollars swept to shore along with hundreds of tiny crabs and shellfish burrowing frantically in the sand with every crashing wave.

We've usually left the house fairly early for our weekend beach jaunts, but last Saturday, after I spent the morning complaining needlessly to my SH about my desperate desire to relax and not have to leave the house, I decided that we should just try a late afternoon beach trip. We were a bit anxious, knowing we wouldn't arrive on the beach until after five, but our worries were completely unfounded. An utterly quiet beach awaited us, soaking in the warmth of an unseasonably warm day. We had a romantic picnic, and stayed through the sunset. I wish that I could describe how wonderful it was, but there really aren't proper words for it. All I can do is profess how unbelievably lucky we are, that such a place lies so easily within our reach.

And the name of our new haunt? Wouldn't you like to know!

Monday, September 7, 2009

"When I told you I didn't want you, it was the very blackest kind of blasphemy. "

Monday, September 7, 2009

Could this be from that very pivotal scene? I'm thinking it's a good guess. Don't expect me to let up on the posting, by the way. I'm documenting my obsession, via blog!

"Stupid me! I hate me!"

It's a somber morning in the Top Chef mansion. Jen struggles with the fact that she was on the losing team and has only been in the top four 3 out of the four challenges. She is clearly a perfectionist. Jesse, on the other hand, is mourning her consistently poor showing in the challenges. Gosh, I miss the days of Hosea and Leah flirting constantly, Ariane mourning her ineptitude, and Dr. Chase flexing his muscles.

Mark Peel, Padma, and a "mountain of potatoes" await the chefs in the Top Chef kitchen. Mark was a particularly fun chef to watch on Top Chef Masters this summer, so I'm pleased to see him. He shares his "humble" beginnings peeling vegetables for Wolfgang Puck with the cheftestants, and they learn that it's going to be a remarkably simple quickfire: in 40 minutes, make an "out of this world" dish featuring potatoes. Jesse loves potatoes, all kinds, Russian banana fingerlings, red sweet potatoes, French fingerlings...there are many more than I knew existed.

Jen immediately thinks of making mussels with a potato-based sauce. She has shown remarkable prowess thus far, and I'm now sure her final product will be delicious. Ron, the Haitian, decides to make a sweet potato-crusted yellowtail snapper, and in the first of many endearing comments throughout the episode, states that he is like Bob Marley with food. I love him more and more.

Ash decides to go for sweet potato ice cream. I don't know Ash, do you really have time to successfully make ice cream? I'm also worried about Mike Isabella's potato risotto-kind of dicey if you ask me. And I'm not so sure about Ashley's potato gnocchi-forty minutes is SHORT, Ashley, a brief window of time! Is it even possible..oh no! The drama! Preeti accidentally took the gnocchi-boiling water! Ashley is understandably furious, but holds it together and finishes the dish on time. It's lucky for you, Preeti, that you didn't take Jen's water. She will cut you!

Ash improvised on the fly when his ice cream didn't pan out, calling his final product a custard, which Mark and Padma loved. Michael V. confitted everything, basically. How many times can one say "confit" in one sentence? Several chefs made potatoes three ways. I, for one, don't think that is a particularly creative approach. Mattin pronounces cod as "code." His accent is beginning to verge on annoying. Ashley's potato gnocchi with sauteed hen of the woods mushrooms and homemade ricotta is a hit, despite the pot of water fiasco. By the way, I looked up "hen of the woods" mushrooms out of my intense curiosity, and learned that their official name is "grifola frondosa", though they also go by "maitake" when used in Asian-influenced cooking. Good old, reliable Wikipedia! Always comes through in a pinch!

In the end, Jesse's soup is too cayenne-heavy, Eli's sweet potatoes were too sweet (not to mention that his puree included one tiny pistachio shell out of millions that of COURSE Padma had to melodramatically remove from her delicate mouth), and Ron's side dish of leeks was better than the fish. To no one's surprise, Jen was the most successful at finding the "essence of the potato." Mike Isabella is beginning to resent her, while my hatred has begun to drift away. It's wrong, simply wrong, not to respect her talent.

As the chefs gaze eagerly at Padma, awaiting the announcement of the elimination challenge, a dapper military man with an authoritative, yet kindly air enters the room. A patriotic tune begins to play as he greets the chefs. Turns out he is Colonel Dave Belote, commander of the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis Air Force Base. The chefs are to report to the base to prepare a meal for 300 airmen, who, contrary to popular belief, do "possess discerning tastes." They'll be working as a single team, but they won't know about their ingredients or cooking equipment until they arrive at the base. Predictably, the chefs are in a slight state of panic about those working conditions.

Back at the house, Ashley and Mike Isabella help to gather the chefs for a planning meeting. Mike Isabella (yes, I enjoy typing his whole name) puts it out there that it might be a good idea if there was one head chef who facilitates and helps run the kitchen while the rest divide up into 7 teams of 2. Because Jen is immune, he suggests that she would be the one for the job. Turns out, she's PERFECT for the job, but I'll get to that later.

The pairing up was interesting. Preeti and Laurine join up because of their California connection, Kevin and Eli have a "fat kid bond" (plus, they're both from Atlanta), Ashley and Ash join forces, and Jesse and Ron are stuck with each other. In a slightly adorable twist, Michael V. and Bryan both find themselves slightly disappointed not to be working with each other, due to Mike Isabella's instant attachment to Michael, with whom he has previously worked.

The chefs leave the desert mansion what is to them the crack of dawn, heading out to the air force base in a military transport vehicle. As they head into the kitchen, the vast majority are floored to discover that what they have to work with is essentially a traditional "mess" kitchen, stocked with canned goods and containing economy-sized vats over heating units instead of burners. Kevin is unfazed, and says that it's exactly what he expected.

Jen gives all the chefs a "go" after they've decided upon a decent dish, and the chefs get cracking. It was nice to see the generally positive attitude as they began to work. Michael V. is gradually becoming more and more appealing, saying that if the airmen can use a kitchen like that every day, they can certainly prepare a good meal at least once.

Preeti and Laurine work on a pasta salad, which I feel is an uninspired, far too safe choice. Michael V. and Mike Isabella work on a most delicious sounding braised pork belly. Mattin and Bryan decide upon a traditional steak dish with a cauliflower gratin. Kevin and Eli go south, opting for braised pork and potato salad.

Ron asks Jesse how she feels about chowder, and before an array of warning bells go off in my head (Chowder? On a hot day in Nevada? Bad idea, Ron! Very bad!) he lets us know that he has won the Montauk Chowder Festival not once, but FOUR TIMES. This was stated in the most humble, straightforward tone imaginable. Plus, "you know those troops-they love chowder." And I love Ron.

Hector and Robin work on a three-bean chicken chili, which he is not worried about at all because the well-documented fact that if one eats something hot on a hot day, the ensuing sweat will end up cooling one down.

As Preeti and Laurine scrape their undoubtedly NOT al dente pasta out of a gigantic vat, we learn that space for cooking is becoming a problem. Jesse and Ron are freaking out about their chowder, because they need that soup kettle. Unfortunately, "Frenchie" (as Ron has aptly named Mattin) needs the kettle for his bechamel. It's very stressful.

Never fear, chefs! You have chosen the unflappable Jen as your leader! It doesn't take an expert to see that Jen is absolutely suited for the job, and is probably a most remarkable asset in Eric Ripert's kitchen. I take back everything negative I've said about her-there is almost nothing that I respect and admire more than someone who proves to be a good leader, who knows what they're talking about, delegates effectively, and doesn't take any crap. Those qualities are not easy to find! She'd probably be a great teacher. Without all the bourbon-swilling, of course.

As the chefs finalize all the dishes, I have to give them (and any military cook!) credit-it must have been tough. Every dish looked unmanageably large and precarious. They even had to stir with what looked like giant metal bars!

The chefs headed over (by convoy, of course) to a spotless hangar, with pristine blue and white-tableclothed tables, for the elimination challenge. They get a little swept up in the moment as they head in, but pull themselves together quickly and begin to organize the serving tables. The pasta salad looks lame and pathetic next to the other dishes, particularly Michael V.'s pork belly.

It was too much to see Padma's long legs and animal-print clad self emerge from the vehicle, too much. A bit cinematic. But that is Bravo for you! A huge line begins to form, and the chefs start to sell and serve. There was a palpable feeling of honor amongst the chefs-you could tell they felt proud (if a bit stressed) to be serving the service men and women.

The standout dishes were Michael V.'s (and Mike Isabella's) braised pork belly and Kevin and Eli's southern pork and potato salad combo. Both salads were, predictably, abysmal failures. The crowd loved the chili and the chowder, so I felt confident that my two faves, Jesse and Ron, were safe from judgment.

At the meal's conclusion, the Colonel thanked the chefs, sharing a few stories about the service men and women, some who were on the verge of returning to duty. It was heartwarming, and felt truly meaningful. Emotions were high. I even teared up!

Back at judge's table, Kevin, Eli, Michael V., and Mike Isabella were called forth as the victors. Though the potato salad and pork shoulder were very successful, Michael Voltaggio's addictively delicious pork belly (comprised out of what would have been a simple slab of bacon!) triumphed. Tom was quite impressed by Michael's ingenuity-he is really beginning to stand out! Much to Mike Isabella's chagrin, he found himself on the bottom (along with Preeti and Laurine) for his poor attempt at a Greek salad.

While Preeti and Laurine floundered about for a decent explanation for a poor dish, Mike Isabella seethed at the fact that he was at both the winner's and loser's table. While he made the poor choice (like Ashley in the previous episode) of making another unnecessary dish, he was at least able to admit he had made a mistake, and was "angry at himself." Preeti and Laurine felt a vegetarian dish was necessary, and weren't even able to determine who had the idea for pasta salad. Preeti, yet again, spouted off about how she felt their dish was so flavorful and delicious, and better than several of the other dishes. Preeti, this is really bad behavior for Top Chef-if the judges don't like your dish, the last thing you should be doing is talking about how great you think it is. THEY ARE ALWAYS RIGHT. She was sent to pack her knives, and Laurine was spared. Preeti's three appearances on the show don't leave me feeling that she deserved another chance-come back in a few years, girl!

The previews for next week look intense! A chef eliminated during the quickfire? Cooking for the best French chefs in the world in only the fourth episode of the season? Balls!

"I'm so focused on my station that I don't have the time to flirt."

It’s a new day in Vegas at the exotic desert mansion. The colorfully tattooed chefs prepare for a strenuous day. Quite a bit of time is spent on grooming and hair preparation. Clearly there is a need to fill the slot of time that had been devoted to ogling Dr. Chase’s sculpted abs. Michael V. amps up the cool factor by shaving with his cap on.

The judges head into the Top Chef kitchen and, as is the usual response upon the reveal of each episode’s guest judge, immediately recognize the rather smarmy-looking Todd English. Now, I had heard of Todd English before this episode, due to his previous Top Chef appearance. It continues to be a mystery to me how the cheftestants spew forth all sorts of fun facts about each guest judge. They’re not all as famous as Jean Georges!

A large craps table, conveniently placed in the middle of the kitchen, was a dead giveaway that this would be another “high-stakes” quickfire (with a $15,000 chip). The chefs learn that they will be rolling the dice to determine how many ingredients they will use to create a dish. Salt, pepper, and oil are the only ingredients that don’t count. Obviously rolling a 12 or a 3 would truly increase the difficulty of the challenge, and most of the chefs correctly speculate that it would be best to roll a modest, fairly low number. Michael V. decides to be risky-this is becoming a theme with him. Jesse accidentally grabbed a nonstick pan, which will be useless when it comes to searing her scallops. Kevin is freaking out about having 10 ingredients, but I feel he will persevere.

Jen C.’s jalepeno emulsion makes me realize that maybe I shouldn’t hate her. Michael V.’s Richard-esque antics are pleasing to Todd English, though he refers to his toast as “bread toast.” Kevin made a delicious looking salad which contained fennel cream. I am beginning to understand why the Voltaggio brothers were selected for the show-they are both clearly talented, albeit in different ways. Bryan’s dish, though not loved by the judges, was beautiful.

Todd English did not enjoy Eve, Jesse, or Bryan’s dishes. I believe he referred to Jesse’s scallops as “blond.” Did he mean bland? Hmmm. Jen C. (clearly a major contender for this season), Kevin, and Michael V. were the three favorites, and Michael was selected as the quickfire winner. Of course, we had to get a few words in from Bryan hinting at sibling rivalry.

Now on to what I found to be one of the least imaginative elimination challenges of the entire series: pairing dishes with hand-picked shots for a joint bachelor/bachelorette party. Padma refers to the challenge as a “Battle of the Sexes”, which jointly offends (in the case of Ashley) and irritates (Jen C.) a majority of the chefs. It is true that Vegas is a popular destination for these debaucherous (thanks for that little adjective, Kevin) soirees, but I don’t know that I would go so far as to call it a Vegas tradition.

Karen and Greg (bride and groom) march in with precariously balanced trays of shots. The men will be preparing food for the ladies, female chefs cooking for the men. Of course. The bride is a pescatarian who loves to pour sriracha on everything. The groom loves lean fish-those were his exact words. Both teams are extremely confident as they head into Whole Foods, though you can tell that they are dubious about the undeniably lowbrow pairing of fine food with shots.

Nothing particularly eventful occurs during preparation, though Bryan goes on a bit about how he wants to beat his brother. Curious, considering that they are ON THE SAME TEAM. The Top Chef warning music plays when Ashley announces that she wants to make a second dish. Word to the wise: do not EVER make a second dish on this show if you don’t have to. It’s one of the MANY kisses of death that one might encounter throughout the competition.

The challenge takes place at an admittedly beautiful pool and cabana area at the M resort. I am immediately concerned about the heat factor, because a WIDE array of seafood has been chosen for the pescatarian and her fiancé.

Michael V. is taking about risks again, which could be a red flag or a sign of future success. The same could be said about Preeti’s shiso leaf garnish. No way to know at this point. Laurine hints that that the girls have prepared more familiar food than the boys.
A little aside: Mattin LOVES the ladies. He thinks they look hot, and is momentarily distracted by their beauty.

Eve’s ceviche looks absolutely wretched-even I could see that she didn’t use enough lime juice to keep her avocado from discoloring. Jen C.’s cevich, on the other hand, was loved by all. Apparently octopus goes well with tequila. I think Jesse’s lettuce cup looks fresh and cool, but Preeti’s tuna is an alarming shade of purple. The judges hated both dishes. Ashley’s watermelon carpaccio was a hit, but she ruined her good impression by making the second dish. I told you, Ashley! Kiss of death!

While the women’s dishes were being judged ruthlessly, the men were enjoying shots with the bachelorette and her gals. It’s immediately obvious that their dishes are indeed more complex: Michael V.’s goat cheese cookie with apple sorbet, Kevin’s chilled almond soup with king crab, cucumber, and white grape… The judges almost exclusively adore them, with the exception of Mike Isabella and the Haitian. By the way, I’ve come to love the Haitian. I could listen to him talk all day. The women seem defeated at the end of the challenge, but the men jump joyously into the pool, clothes and all. Well, Mattin kept his red scarf on.

Not surprisingly, the men were chosen the winners of the challenge. Bryan, Hector, Eli, and Michael V. were singled out for their unique, delicious dishes. It came down to a choice between the two brothers, and this time, Bryan and his sweet and sour macaroon filled with guacamole, corn nuts, and corn puree, were victorious. Of course, he didn’t get a $15,000 chip, but he considers it a redemption of sorts. I’m thinking he is a bit too serious for my taste.

Eve, Jesse, Preeti, and Ashley were the cursed bottom four. Despite my love for Jesse, I’m thinking it’s obvious that she just doesn’t have quite as much experience as is necessary to “hang” with most of the contestants on the show. Preeti’s dish was too pedestrian, and she committed the cardinal sin of not acknowledging her mistakes. Ashley realized her own mistake in making two dishes, but Eve could barely summon any sort of explanation for her shrimp ceviche, and was truly the obvious choice to go home.

Even if I had not had a ridiculously busy week, I wouldn’t have felt particularly inspired to write a recap for this episode. Fortunately, it was followed this week by a fabulous episode that I cannot WAIT to write about. I am now a Jen C. fan! We get a hint as to why Ron was chosen to compete on the show! Jesse doesn’t end up on the bottom! Aren’t you dying to read about it?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Swim Upstream for It: Seared Salmon with Soy and Garlic + Spicy Cilantro-Scallion Rice with Sweet and Sour Cucumber and Red Onion Relish

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Right after we've enjoyed a salmon dinner, my mother-in-law inevitably pushes her chair back at some point, sighs with pleasure, and states that "eating salmon is like having candy." Truly, I could not put it better. I love salmon, with its wild, distinctive flavor, which is unlike any other fish. Barely anything has to be done to it to produce good results, and it takes practically no time at all to cook (though you could say the same of most fish). It's exactly the kind of thing I need on my now-limited evenings, when the last thing I really want to do is prepare something complicated.

I've made this particular recipe before (minus the relish), and it was heavenly. I thought I'd try it again, and if I must say, I did an even more of a bang-up job this time than I did the first time. The salmon gained a slight, satisfying char from its quick drenching in tamari and garlic, and when placed atop a fluffy pile of rice, one could see tiny, flavorful rivulets of my hasty marinade begin to thread delicately through the rice. That side dish alone would be worth making as a dinner for one on a busy evening-flavorful and subtly spicy, enhanced by bits of barely sauteed jalepeno, light, spring-green scallions, and the ever dependable exotic flair of cilantro. The relish is really what pushed the dish over the edge into a more refined territory. At least, that is what I thought to myself as I scattered the spicy brine of purple-tinged red onions and chunks of cucumber somewhat haphazardly across the salmon.

Despite my love and adoration for Rachael Ray, I typically don't enjoy her cutesy, cheesy, occasionally annoying recipe titles. I've included it here because it's absolutely appropriate. And I really would swim upstream for this salmon.

Seared Salmon with Soy and Garlic + Spicy Cilantro-Scallion Rice with Sweet and Sour Cucumber and Red Onion Relish, adapted from 2,4,6,8: Great Meals for Couples or Crowds, by Rachael Ray

Sweet and Sour Cucumber and Red Onion Relish

1/2 cup rice wine or cider vinegar (eyeball it)
2 rounded tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 European seedless cucumber, cut in half lengthwise then thinly sliced into half moons
1 red onion, thinly sliced

In a small sauce pot, combine the vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes, and a little salt. Bring it up to a simmer over medium-high heat and cook until the sugar has completely dissolved. While the sugar is dissolving, combine the cucumbers and red onions in a bowl. Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the cucumbers and onions, stir to coat, and let them cool to room temperature.

Spicy Cilantro-Scallion Rice

2 tablespoons vegetable oil (eyeball it)
1 serrano or jalepeno pepper, halved lengthwise and seeded
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 cups long-grain white rice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves (2 generous handfuls), chopped
6 scallions, thinly sliced.

Heat a medium sauce pot over medium-high heat with the vegetable oil, 2 times around the pan. Add the pepper halves and the garlic cloves, cook for about 1 minute, then add the rice and stir to coat it with the oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add the chicken stock and bring the liquid to a boil. Cover the rice, reduce the heat to very low, and cook the rice for 18 to 20 minutes, until it's tender. Add the cilantro and scallions and fluff with a fork. Remove what's left of the pepper halves; some small pieces may have broken away but they will be tender and flavorful (I left the pepper halves in the rice).

Seared Salmon with Soy and Garlic

1/4 cup tamari (dark soy sauce; eyeball it)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/2 tablespoon ground coriander, 1/2 palmful
6 skinless salmon fillets, 6 ounces each)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (eyeball it)
Freshly ground black pepper

In a shallow dish, combine the tamari, garlic, and coriander. Add the salmon fillets, turn to coat them, and let them marinate for about 5 minutes.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"I'm on the bottom again. Balls!"

Friday, September 4, 2009

Just so you know, I haven't forgotten Top Chef. This Wednesday's episode was one of my favorites, and I KNOW I'm two episodes behind. I WILL finish my recaps on this lovely holiday weekend. I thought I would just post a peek at one of the plethora of tattoos that bedeck this season's chefs-this arm belongs to my beloved Jesse.