Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gourmet Corn on the Cob?

How many of us remember going to a picnic where there was a pot of boiled corn on the cob? I always remember thinking what a perfect food – it tastes great, looks great, and comes on its own serving utensil. I always liked mine rolled in butter with a bit of salt. Give me a burger with ketchup and onions then I’m in heaven.

As an adult I still love corn on the cob, especially if it is picked no more than the the day before I eat it. This is a great year for sweet corn. There is a stall at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market that has pretty good white corn. The best I have had, ever, is the heirloom yellow and white that a farmer offers at the Burlingame Farmer’s Market on Sunday. The corn is grown in Gilroy where the hot weather is perfect for growing grain like corn. The farmer has consistently had white corn that is super sweet and crisp. Occasionally they have the heirloom variety which is also crisp and sweet with a more complex almost nutty flavor that comes through when I grill it.

There are a few basic ways I cook fresh corn depending on if I want to fire up my grill or not. Friday and Saturday were sweltering hot in Burlingame, so I took the kitchen outside to my simple Weber kettle grill. About 30 minutes before grilling the corn, I start the coals in my chimney to get the grill going, and I put the ears in my sink in cold water to soak. Be sure to leave the husks on for outdoor grilling. When ready, I pour the glowing coals onto one side of the grill so that I have two distinct cooking areas: One over direct heat which has the coals below, and the other side for indirect heat that does not have any coals below. I always set up my grill this way no matter what I plan to cook. For meats, I sear over the coals with the lid off to get perfect grill marks, and finish indirect with the lid on to get the perfect temperature and a good infusion of smoke. Before the meat or vegetables go on, I place the corn at the edge of the direct heat area to get the steam going inside the husks. I rotate the corn a quarter turn every three or four minutes as the husks get a toasted look to them. Once the whole corn is tan, I remove from the grill and wrap in foil while I cook the meat, which takes five to seven minutes depending on what I am grilling (usually boneless chicken breasts, hamburgers, or steaks). While the meat is resting I shuck the corn. If all I want is some butter and salt, I shuck an ear, roll in butter, have Stacy sprinkle a bit of salt while I rotate the ear, and put it back into the foil to keep it hot. I repeat this process one ear at a time. If I want some grill marks on the corn, I take the shucked ears to my grill for a quick sear over direct heat and then move them to the indirect side to keep hot. I then repeat the butter and salt process and rewrap the ears to keep them hot until opened at the table. Delicious!

This weekend Stacy and I enjoyed one of those rare weekends that our plans were simply “do nothing”. We savor the opportunity to be completely spontaneous for two days particularly over a hot and lazy late summer weekend. We made our usual trip to the Market with our only task to buy a few items for our meals over the coming week. After picking up eggs, plums, peaches, strawberries, runner beans, red onions, a few varieties of heirloom tomatoes, English peas, Brussels sprouts (the first of the season), and some carrots, we decided to have lunch seated at the bar at Slanted Door. If you arrive a few minutes before eleven you are guaranteed a seat at the bar, and lately even a table if you want. We like to sit at the bar to chat with the bartender as we enjoy a sort of Asian tapas meal. Stacy loves the Reposado (rested and aged in wood) margarita up with no salt which is served in a chilled martini glass. I always ask the bartender for a white wine recommendation since their wine list is incomprehensible to me as I rarely drink the floral sweet wines from Eastern Europe that they feature. I usually get a dry Riesling reminiscent of Chablis that pairs well with the flavors Chef Phan imparts into his dishes.

The food is always fresh and a mix of seasonal and regional ingredients that Phan uses to achieve his fusion of East and West. The menu includes a vegetables section at the bottom that features something sourced from a local farm as an ingredient in a vegetable side dish. We frequently order a vegetable dish accompanied by broken white rice as our entrée, as we did this Saturday. The dish was white corn from Catalan Family Farm that was grilled and stripped from the ears. The chef then fired some chanterelles in a hot oiled wok with some scallions, fish sauce, a hint of chili, and the corn kernels.

I plan to duplicate the recipe tonight using my Lodge cast iron wok and the heirloom corn I bought today at the Burlingame Market. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Perfect Corn On The Cob on Foodista

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Chicken Salad

Chicken salad sandwiches were something I grew up eating. Recently I reconnected with this simple dish and found I really like it when it is made from scratch with fresh ingredients. It is also a healthy and inexpensive meal. I buy whole chickens and then de-bone them myself because I know where the meat comes from and how fresh it is. Also, I buy a whole natural chicken for what it costs to buy just the breasts from the meat counter.

On September 19th I plan to lead a class at my house to teach the knife skills necessary to accomplish this simple task and create a few dishes from a single, whole chicken. From one chicken Stacy and I get a nice meal of roasted or grilled "airline" breasts. I also make stock from the carcass which I use for soups or to make risotto or steam rice or let soak into pasta. I use stock as a base for pan gravy sometimes when I want a bit more comfort in our meal when we eat the breasts. The other parts: the legs, thighs and wings are used for quick meals.

When I de-bone the chicken, I de-bone the thighs and leave the bones in the legs and wings as I don't find the resulting boneless cuts worth the effort. I roll the boneless thighs and set next to the legs and wings and roast them with the carcass as part of the de-boning process. The roasted carcasses and pan drippings go into the freezer in a bag until I have enough bones to make it worthwhile to spend a few hours making stock. The legs and thighs go into the refrigerator and the breasts to a brine for dinner that same day. It takes me about 5 to 10 minutes to complete the deboning and another 15 minutes to roast and de-glaze the roasting pan.

Later in the week I slice the boneless thighs and strip the meat from the legs to use in salads. The wings are used for spicy wings or just eaten cold for lunch one day. My favorite salad is my aioli based chicken salad. I love it on toasted bread for lunch. Sometimes Stacy and I will eat it for dinner. I usually produce four portions from the legs and thighs of one chicken, so it is a very inexpensive food. It is labor intensive to make a fresh salad if you cut the vegetables to get the best texture and flavor from the salad..

I start by making my own aioli which is described in an earlier post. This is not hard with a power mixer and tastes so much better than store-bought mayo. For my salad I use one egg yolk and 1/2 cup of oil in the aioli. Then I cut fresh carrots into a brunoise; fresh onion and celery into a small dice; And then I add pickles. I love pickles. I make my own dill using all sorts of vegetables like zucchini squash, radishes and even turnips. I make bread and butter pickles with onions and cucumbers and sweet red or yellow peppers. For my salad, I drain the pickles and then chop them into dice the same sizes as my fresh vegetables. Next, I add a bit of mustard and paprika. Sometimes I throw in some drained capers if I have them in the fridge. I mix the chicken meat and everything else in the aioli, adjust the seasonings and it's ready to eat.

I did the math to calculate what all of the meals cost when I start from whole chickens. A whole natural Fulton Valley Farms chicken costs about $3 per pound. I recommend that you buy natural over organic free range as the chickens live a better life. The best are pasture-raised if you can find and afford them. They cost $5 or $6 per pound. With a natural chicken the whole 3 lb bird costs about $10. Add a pasture raised egg for the aioli which costs 60 cents each. I make egg white omelets from the whites since the aioli only uses the yolk. I estimate that the oil, vegetables, pickles, mustard and spices adds about $4 (I use 50% extra-virgin olive oil and 50% salad oil in my aioli for chicken salad). So for $15 I get two entrees, an egg white omelet and the filling for four sandwiches. Not only do all of these meals taste great, the are also inexpensive!

Brunoise on Foodista

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Do I have to go back to school?

Every August it seems like summer will last forever. The long days and warm weather make our back deck perfect for dining, or just sitting and reading a book or chatting over a glass of wine. Then suddenly it seems everyone kicks into a frantic gear to get the kids back to school which markedly changes the character or our neighborhood. Instead of leisurely walks with our dogs along quiet streets on weekday mornings, we either rise at 6 AM or share the narrow roads with speeding cars driven by parents dropping off their children at the high school in our neighborhood. Summer is coming to an end, which means it will soon be harvest season.

We should have been more prepared for the coming change when we saw table grapes appear at the Market stalls. There are all sorts of sweet red and yellow grapes available now that add color and texture to appetizers or make simple snacks. And they are good this year. My friends in the wine business are telling me that 2009 looks like a strong harvest of high quality fruit for California. The 2007 vintage was good with many white wines now available from that vintage. We have been enjoying many 2005 red wines lately, too. We tend to drink more white wine in the summer because our diet focuses more on light and raw dishes like cold vegetable-based soups and salads. Our entrees are usually fish, chicken, or legumes, which complement the acidity and light fruit in white wines. As the weather turns cooler we tend to eat darker greens like chard and kale and our entrees are built on a canvas of sauces which complement the bolder flavors of red wines.

I am already thinking ahead to what we will be cooking and eating as the harvest peaks and wanes. We want to capture the best of the harvest to preserve for winter in our freezer or in canning jars. This Saturday Stacy and I held our class that was donated to benefit the Lick-Wilmerding High School. It was also the first time since March that I braised beef. I designed the menu to be fun and interesting for the folks that bid so generously to participate and to practice the September 12 menu that I will cook for 60 people that generously bid on seats to benefit the Howell mountain Elementary School. We became involved in both benefits through friends. Our friend Mark, who teaches physics at Lick-Wilmerding collaborated for the Saturday class donation; and our friends Jacalyn and Allen Spence of Spence Vineyards along with Summit Lake winery conceived the September 12 party, which I volunteered to cater. It seemed fitting to me that the menu for both events would be the same. The first in August to teach and practice at the scale of a 12-person garden party followed in September as a catering job with experienced cooks by my side to serve 60 in the vineyards at Summit Lake Winery.

The menu is typical of what I would serve to my friends at a dinner party since it offers the cook the opportunity to make almost everything ahead so the cook enjoys the meal at the table along with the guests. It is also useful for a larger scale party where there are limited kitchen resources. When I say limited, I mean cooking for 60 people at a location that has what I believe to be an antique 1940’s Autogas stove and oven. Suffice to say, it isn’t nearly large enough to cook for a dinner of that scale. My solution to this challenge is to serve all courses cold except the entrée which will be braised offsite and transported in coolers to the dinner. The menu is a juxtaposition of summer and winter reflective of the time of year.
Here’s the menu we cooked on Saturday.
I have posted the recipe files here.
(You must be a member of Cooking-Fresh to view the file)

Appetizers: Heirloom Tomato Buschetta
Fresh Figs with Peppered Honey and Chevre

Soup: Chilled Avocado Corn Soup with Cilantro Oil

Salad: Stone Fruit Salad with Asian vinaigrette

Entrée: Beef Short Ribs Braised in Howell Mountain Cabernet
Cabernet Sauce
Canellini Runner Beans Dressed with Garlic Infused Olive Oil

Dessert: Ghiradelli Award-Wining Chocolate Brownies
Home Made Raspberry Ice Cream
Raspberry Sauce

This five course meal may seem complicated and way too much work for one cook to prepare and serve, but it is easy with a bit of planning and cooking ahead to spread the work out so you aren’t slaving in the kitchen hours before the meal. Here’s how:

Weekend before: Make beef stock (for entrée) and make the corn soup base (up to the point that you add avocadoes). Store the stock in the fridger. Freeze the soup base. Start thaw two days before serving in the refrigerator

Two or three days before: Make ice cream and raspberry sauce. Keep the ice cream in the freezer and store sauce in refrigerator.

One or two days before: Braise the beef using your stock. Strain and finish the sauce. Recombine and store in refrigerator in the vessel you will use to reheat the dish.

One day before: Make garlic-infused olive oil for bruschetta. Make the vinaigrettes for the bruschetta and for the stone fruit salads. Make the peppered honey, seal in an air-tight container and store at room temperature. Shop for the remaining ingredients (if we’re serving on Saturday then we buy from the Farmer’s Market in the AM). Put the white wines into the fridge to chill and stand the reds up on their bottoms in your pantry or some other dark, room temp spot in your house (This makes the wine better when opened, trust me).

With all of the work you have done during the days leading up to the party, you greatly simplify what remains to do before your guests arrive, which are:

Stone Fruit Salad: Several hours before your guests arrive, slice the fruit and onion, add to vinaigrette and stage in refrigerator. Wash the greens and stage in refrigerator. When it’s time to serve the salad course, you simply toss greens with the vinaigrette, put some greens on each plate, top with fruit and onions and serve.

Soup: About an hour before guests arrive, blend the avocados and lime with the thawed soup base and refrigerate. Also blend the cilantro and oil and sieve. This takes about ½ hour of unattended time to let the oil come through the cheesecloth, so just let it do it’s thing on a counter in your kitchen. When ready, put into the refrigerator until service time. When it’s time to serve, place ½ cup of blended soup in each bowl, add the avocado balls and crème fraiche then drizzle with cilantro oil and serve.

Bruschetta: About an hour before the guests arrive, chop tomatoes and toss in vinaigrette and leave out on the counter; slice, brush with oil and toast bread ovals. Assemble bruschetta as your guests arrive.

Figs: One hour before guests arrive slice the figs and add the cheese. Store at room temp to allow the cheese to ripen. Drizzle with honey moments before your guests arrive.

Entrée: A few hours before guests arrive, place the meat and sauce into a low oven, say 250 degrees. Just leave it in there until ready to serve. Also, shuck and wash the beans. Cut the onions and store both in the fridge. Set the beans and onions on the stove to simmer when you are ready to sit down for the soup. Check the beans between courses. When they are done, turn off the heat and let them sit until you are ready serve. To serve the entrée, take the meat and sauce out of the oven. Pool a bit of the sauce on each plate; add a rib and a side of beans that you strain out of the cooking liquid with a slotted spoon to each plate. Dress the beans with a bit of oil and salt and serve the plates.
The entree was the most kitchen time during the meal since it is the star of the meal and served hot it deserved the attention. Now linger over your wine with your guests and serve dessert when you feel it is time to transition the party.

Dessert: Bake the brownies either the day of the party or the day before. If you have two ovens and time it right you can mix the brownie dough and get them into the oven just before your guests arrive so they are warm when served. Also, take the ice cream out of the freezer and move to the refrigerator at the start of appetizers. That way it will be softened for service. The dessert service is simply place a brownie on a plate along with a side of ice cream and drizzle the raspberry sauce however you like.

You have probably noticed that the most stressful time for the cook is right before guests arrive. Don’t worry if you are still in the kitchen at the time you expect guests. It is rare that all of your guests arrive on time. I always welcome any one early into the kitchen to help with the final prep of the meal. It helps break the ice and also relieves me of some of the hectic work in that last critical half hour before the party starts. Be prepared to accept offers of help or ask for help as your guests arrive as it will make the party more fun for you and your guests.

Finally, for those of you dropping your kids off at school in the morning, please keep mindful that the groggy couple you see walking their dogs is not awake and needs a brake.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta

The heirloom tomatoes are at their peak right now. They are plump, juicy and burst with flavor. We are eating all kinds of cherry, early girl, purple Cherokee, yellow boy, red and green zebra, and pineapple varieties. I have developed the best recipe for bruschetta which was served as an appetizer at our Lam Family cooking party on Saturday. Stacy commented that the bruschetta "disappeared like bubbles". Justine, Chrissy and Jennifer ate them almost as fast as they made them. I like the hint of garlic notes in the vinaigrette and in the oil brushed onto the bread. We used early girl, yellow boy, and red zebra tomatoes. The combination of tomatoes made the bruschetta beautiful and delicious.

1 sweet baguette sliced into ovals
4 medium tomatoes chopped
2 cloves garlic minced
2/3 cup of olive oil
Basil chiffonade as garnish

Heat garlic and oil to a sizzle and remove from heat (infuses the garlic into the oil)
Brush one side of bread slices with oil and toast
Reserve garlic oil to make vinaigrette

To serve, toss tomato chunks in vinaigrette
Top bread slices oil side up with tomato chunks using a slotted spoon
Garnish with basil and serve

Balsamic vinaigrette

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 cup garlic infused olive oil (see above)

Mix first four ingredients into a bowl
vigorously whisk oil in a stream to emulsify

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fresh figs with chevre and peppered honey

Fresh figs are in season now and they are delicious. I came across a wonderful appetizer recipe using fresh figs that I used as an amuse bouche for a multi-course meal on Saturday evening. It is elegant, delicious, easy to make and beautiful to look at.

Fresh figs with chevre and peppered honey

2 oz of floral honey ( I used blackberry)
Several grinds of black pepper from the mill

Mix honey and pepper together in a small bowl.

12 figs
2 oz chevre. (I used the Humbolt Fog which is made by Cypress Grove)

Wash and clip the points off the figs.
Slice the figs into quarters from where the point was to almost the bottom, leaving the bottom attached so that you can open the fig. Did you know that figs are actually flowers that have turned in on themselves? That's why the inside looks like a flower when opened up.

Place each fig on a platter as an appetizer or on individual small plates as an amuse bouche. Put a small piece of the chevre in the center of each fig. Like all cheese courses, let the dish rest for about an hour so that the cheese ripens. Then drizzle the peppered honey on top and serve.
Note: The honey goes on just before service since it will run out of the fig onto the plate if you put it on and then ripen the cheese.