Thursday, July 31, 2008

WEEKNIGHT DINNER: My Take on Shrimp and Grits, Italian Style

Oh those infamous shrimp and grits…not appealing to you? Well my Italian style will be. A simple substitution of grits for polenta turns this southern specialty into a Mediterranean summer meal. An easy yet beautiful weeknight dinner of creamy polenta, sautéed shrimp with lemon zest and garlic and sautéed summer corn finished with parsley and chives, plus a nice side of grilled summer squashes.
While this may not be the southern dish you have come to love, it mingles Mediterranean flavors in perfect harmony. Creamy polenta is finished with a splash of cream and butter, shrimp are perfectly paired with the sweet corn, and the zucchini provides a counter to all that sweetness. It makes a beautiful presentation, which would make it oh-so perfect for your next dinner party. Plus, this completely original recipe elevates the mundane weeknight cooking to gourmet. What could be better? Oh I know, letting you have the recipe. So here it is…
For the Creamy Polenta:
¾ cup coarse grain polenta
2 ¼ cup water + 1 cup to use if needed
Plus salt to taste
A good splash of heavy cream
1 tbs. butter

Sautéed Shrimp:
16 large shrimp de-veined and peeled
Zest of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves, peeled, and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1squeeze of lemon juice
1 tbs. of olive oil

Sautéed Corn:
3 Fresh corn husked, and cut off the cob
2 small chopped leeks
½ tbs. chopped fresh parsley
½ tbs. chopped fresh chives
1 tbs. olive oil

Grilled Summer Squash:
I used a grill pan…easier than starting the grill for one item.
A Variety of summer squash, about 4 or 5 sliced lengthwise into thin strips
1 tbs. olive oil
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Put 2 1/4-cup water into a pot and add a good amount of salt. Bring to a boil and whisk in cornmeal. Stir as much as you can, for about 25 to 30 minutes. Add water if it looks like it is getting to firm. When it is just about finished, add cream and butter and stir, and take off the heat.

Put all shrimp ingredients to a bowl and let sit until ready to cook.
Heat a sauté pan with just a little olive oil. Wait until the pan gets really hot. Place the shrimp in the pan, making sure to leave room between each shrimp. No overlapping. Cook on each side for 2 minutes. And you are done.

Heat olive oil a sauté pan and add the leeks. Let them sweat, 5 minutes. Then add the corn and season with salt and pepper. Cook until corn is tender and done, occasionally stirring, around 5 minutes. Take off heat and toss with parsley and chives.

Heat a grill pan, or turn on your grill, then coat your squash slices with olive oil and season each side with salt and pepper. Place slices on the grill, and turn when they have grill marks. When each side has good grill marks, they are done.

If you want a vegetarian version: skip the shrimp, lay the squash on top of the polenta with a sprinkling of corn and add a little lemon zest on top of everything.

Put a scoopful of polenta in the center of a plate. Place 4 shrimp on top of the polenta and sprinkle with your sautéed corn. Serve with squash on the side of the presentation.
ENJOY your delicious summer meal.

I paired this with a nice summer white, which was fruit forward and very drinkable.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What goes good with wine: SNOW BUNNY

I ventured off to my first wine tasting this weekend after turning the infamous 21. Following the Russian river in search of great pinots, we passed by redwood trees, sunbathers and lots of tie-dye. Our first stop was Arista winery, which presented us with a smooth pinot. Then, it was Rochioli. Last week I drank one of their pinots that was quite good, but this one was lack luster. Our last winery was De La Montanya, while unimpressive at first; one by the name of Sybil was quite the seductress.
So what do you do after a long day of wine tasting in 104 degree whether?

GO GET SOME SNOW BUNNY! While the name is fitting for the hot conditions (wouldn’t we all love a soft but cold bunny to hold), this frozen yogurt stand is a well-appreciated treat.
Yeah, it puts Pink Berry to shame. But that’s what you would expect when it is made with delicious Strauss organic yogurt. It is creamy, refreshing yet quite light. Plus snow bunnies line the walls painted in bathtubs and on ski slopes.
The chocolate wasn’t too intense but wasn’t lacking in flavor like Mr. Softee (not that there is anything wrong with the beloved ice cream truck).
They have a weekly special flavor; last week, it was coconut. Seems fitting since I just made a coconut cake. But I opted for chocolate with raspberry sauce. But I asked to taste everything. I mean, wouldn’t you?
Now, I know Healdsburg is a bit out of the way, but you can make a day out of it. Picnic at the Russian river, hit a few wineries, visit Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg, the one in Ferry Market that makes the scrumptious donut muffin (a muffin that is very tender with cinnamon sugar topping) and then indulge in some frozen yogurt. Yogurt doesn’t have to be the main attraction, but it can be the cherry on top!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

TARTINE Galettes and A Contest to Win the COOKBOOK!

Tartine is a San Francisco establishment and rightfully so. But because of long lines and inconvenient location (at least for a Sunset girl), I opted to buy the cookbook and make some of their delicious treats. Last summer, I attempted the chocolate-layered ganache cake with caramel filling. But for a simpler fare, I recently made fruit galettes. You can make them with an assortment of fillings. I made a Gravenstein (Sebastopol) apple galette and two nectarine and strawberry galettes. The mixed stone fruit and berries made a nice pairing, plus I added some vanilla bean (from the pod) to give it a warm balanced taste. The crust is amazing. It is all about technique. Rolling out the butter makes the butter long and thin giving the crust a delicious flakiness and tenderness. I then sprinkled the crust with turbinado sugar, to give it a nice texture and color.
I would love to give you this recipe, but here’s the deal, it is about three pages long. The recipe itself is not that long but the explanation about technique and chilling (which are key) take a while. So, I am giving away a Tartine cookbook to the person who writes the most comments on my blog (incentive for you to read it and be rewarded!)
Here are the conditions for the CONTEST!
There is a 5 comment minimum to be considered. So no, if you comment once and you are the only person, you can’t win.
It will be tallied for a one-month period starting today.
I will email the winner, and get your address and I will send you a cookbook.
P.S There will not be a tie, so if you are tied, I might judge the quality of comments not only the quantity.

SO here’s to commenting and to good baking!

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Cream Always Rises to the Top

Bottle vs. Carton: A Taste Test Between Clover vs. Strauss

I often wonder when looking at rows of seemingly exact products but with very different packaging, how much of it is packaging and how much of it is taste.
The question becomes even harder to answer when the product in question comes from a cow. The cow’s diet, stress level, overall life, processing of the dairy, shipment and numerous other factors can contribute to two very different products.
So how does Strauss organic cream, the one in the old fashion bottle taste in comparison to Clover organic cream, the one in the carton.
I pass Clover herds as we drive up to Bodega Bay. They seem happy (well, perhaps not happy, since I truly don’t know what makes these cows happy). I will say these are the only cows I have ever seen run, (and not because someone was chasing them) but just to run with other cows. I do know Strauss keeps their cows in the Sonoma region in pretty similar conditions.
But that bottle, the thick glass, the pure white inside, and the blue logo reminding consumers of 1950’s nostalgia, I love it, I fall for it and I buy it every time.
But this week I decided to let go of my love of the bottle and do a side-by-side taste test. I asked myself: Am I being fooled by a pretty exterior?
I took both cream homes and conducted a blind taste test, using my family members as other judges. Our initial impressions are the following:
Strauss was sweeter, yellow in color, heavier, with a smooth and fatty mouth feel. It contains a thick layer of buttery cream on the top making for a few clumps.
Clover possessed an almond-y (nutty) flavor, grassier (more cow like taste.) It was lighter and refreshing.
But we decided to go one step further. Let’s try both creams whipped, with intended purpose to use for fresh cut summer fruit.
While Clover whipped up quicker to a nice pure white consistency. Strauss' cream still was sweeter and was a better complement for the fruit.
I believe Strauss seems better in use of sweet dishes or desserts, such as whipped cream, custards or cakes. While Clover with it’s distinctive flavor would best be suited in sauces, home made cheese, mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs and in coffee or tea (because of the no clump factor.)
I baked some plain scones with clover cream which turned out very rich, yet tender and deliciously scrumptious. And to be honest, in cooking the cream, the differences are probably even more subtle.
So is the bottle all that it is hyped up to be? Probably not, the bottle doesn’t make good cream, the cows do.
And the bottle shouldn’t be the reason for your purchase. (You are probably thinking, I knew that) Yet, each cream has its merits and each cream deserves to be respected as such.
Personally, I like the nutty, grassy taste. It has a nice earthiness and complexity. Yet, for some Strauss’ sweetness and richness is more their style. Try to ignore the bottle and follow your taste.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Almighty Coconut Cake

After watching Alton Brown make a coconut cake truly from scratch, my parents and I set out to make it our family project. Trust me, you need a few hands. What mad inspiration took hold of us that spring evening that made us desire to recreate what we saw on TV? I am still not sure. Was it Alton’s savvy camera angles, or his handy tricks or his nostalgia for the perfect home made coconut cake symbolizing 1950’s Americana. Whatever captivated us; we were determined to become as passionate about this cake as he.
This week, we attempted to make this three page long recipe using all resources we had available: drill, mallet, cusinart, kitchen aid mixer, glass jars, spoons, knifes, scales and more kitchen appliances, plus six hands, three brains, and some tricky maneuvering. We first began purchasing two organic coconuts with no crying eyes. (If you look at the indentation marks on the bottom of the coconut, it should look like a face, but not a sad face, because that means the coconut is old, and we wouldn’t want an old coconut, at least this is what Alton Brown tells us.) We bring them home and begin.
First we drill holes, extract the coconut juice, then bake for 15 minutes until the outer exterior cracks and you can break it off. Although, this may sound easy, the outer exterior is one stubborn shell. Prying, tearing, hammering and fighting made us feel like Keith Richards after his coconut incident, a little woozy (but I guess he always feels that way.) After Family vs. The Coconut (a formidable competitor) we peeled the thin brown skin and grated the coconut chunks. We then made the extract which involved a very under priced bottle of vodka and some freshly grated coconut and a week’s time. Every night, I shook my bottle, waiting for extract to form. (Don’t sit there, the extract won’t mind.)
We then made fresh coconut cream and milk, with boiled two percent milk poured over two different quantities of grated coconut. This is then strained and saved until the baking process.
Which brings me to my next point, the baking. Measuring and following instructions is key. And my mom and I spared no expense. I mean common, we spent over week prepping, so we had to nail this. I am giving you the links to Alton’s Brown’s recipe so you can attempt all the adventures at home. After beating, mixing, accurately measuring (as if in some life or death science experiment) the golden fluffy cakes came out of the oven. We made the frosting and assembled the cake.
Each layer is sprayed with a light misting of coconut juice. All the elements of the coconut are used in the making of this cake, which makes you feel pretty good for all your hard work. This monster of a cake is smeared with a sticky sweet frosting and lots of grated coconut. The subtle, creamy coconut came through like never before. With the appearance of some giant snowball, it was light yet surprisingly had a richness due to the coconut milk and cream. After the first bite of this cloud like mass, it was well worth the effort.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pasta and Italy

Morels, Proscuitto, Rigatoni, Truffles, Oxtail, Cherry Tomatoes, Ricotta, fresh fettuccini, Chianti and panna cotta…Just some of the many ingredients and dishes that captured my tongue, took it hostage, then infiltrated my brain, scalding my memory forever. However disappointing our first meal in Italy was, a stale ol’ panini at the train station, the rest of Italy made up for. Actually, the panini was never quite what we expected. But all the rest was quite fantastic. The simple preparations only accentuated the deep appreciation and respect the Italians have for the quality of ingredients. Yet, we hold preconceived notions about Italians: that they know good food and they appreciate the land. We can’t forget that this is a generalization. You know what, some Italians go to McDonalds, and some pick up pre-made this and that. On the other hand, the restaurants I frequented whether “authentic” or not seemed to value seasonality and simplicity. Pasta is the perfect example of this appreciation. And we had our share of it.
The first night began with the all-delicious creamy gnocchi tossed with morels and prawns. The combination struck the perfect balance between earthiness (morels) and sea flavor (prawns). It was an ode to land and sea, like a sophisticated surf and turf.
In Rome, a restaurant by the name of Pasta in Mani offered orecchiette with plump bursting sweet cherry tomatoes, with creamy bright green fava beans tossed with olive oil and topped with shaved black truffles, giving the dish an earthiness which balanced the sweetness of its counterparts. The pasta was a-la-dente and no cheese was necessary.
Another pasta favorite was the drunken pasta. This highly acidic, violently purple and deep in flavor seems quite unusual, yet the starchy quality of the pasta plays against the highly acidic, omni present wine. Some were executed with a bit more finesse; the wine didn’t overwhelm the pasta but brought out not only an acid component but the qualities of the wine itself. This pasta doesn’t look as absurdly purple and provides a more subtle and complex flavor. (Absurdly purple and acidic pasta shown.)
Finally, one of my favorite pasta’s was rigatoni à l’atranciata. I am not great at Italian, but from what I gather, this sauce can vary quite a bit. It tasted surprisingly like my mother’s pasta sauce, which is a secret I can’t give away. Needless to say, the rigatoni pasta is the perfect shape to capture this hearty tomato sauce; the ridges get filled up and the circular tube allows for sauce to seep in. I will indulge you with more on this meal later on.
Another way to enjoy the bounty that is pasta is to buy it. Buying fresh pasta and preparing at our Rome apartment was a great way to experience the quality of the ingredients. I love to cook with great, fresh ingredients. I kept in simple: fettuccini tossed with butter “de campagna”, olive oil, fresh cherry tomatoes, black pepper and some parmesan cheese. Delicious!

More to Come ....................

Ohh...if we all could be raised on wolf's milk...