Rainbow Soup

What do you feed to a group of hungry Brownie Scouts to kick off a meeting about healthy choices?  Rainbow soup of course!  This is a quick fun soup to put together with kids of all ages.  Shelling peas is an easy project for little hands, while older ones can practice their budding knife skills on asparagus stalks.  It’s full of vibrant colors, enticing kids to eat across the spectrum.   As the abundance of summer produce sets in, add or substitute ingredients as you please.  Fresh herbs from the market or your garden are an easy interchangeable garnish.  My only regret is not having made a triple batch.   The girls practically licked the pot clean!

Ingredients:

  • 2 red tomatoes
  • Salt
  • 8 oz small pasta such as orzo
  • 2 Shallots chopped fine
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 cups good quality chicken broth
  • 2 carrots – peeled, cut in half lengthwise and cut into ¼” coins
  • 1 bunch asparagus – tough ends snapped off, and cut into ½” pieces
  • 2 small yellow squash – cut into small slices
  • 1 cup freshly shelled peas
  • 1 cup canned hominy – drained
  • 1 cup shredded chicken (optional)
  • 1 handful basil, mint or cilantro – roughly chopped

Method:

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil, and prepare a bowl of very cold ice water on the side. Submerge the tomatoes in the boiling water for approximately 15-30 second, quickly remove with a slotted spoon and place in the ice bath. Slip off tomato skins and discard. (If skins are not easily removed, return to hot water for a few more seconds to loosen.) Chop tomatoes into rough squares.

Add the pasta to the same pot of boiling water and cook according to the package directions. Drain and reserve pasta.

Empty and dry the pot.  Heat the olive oil shimmering. Add the shallots and saute for 2-3 minutes until they are soft but not brown. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add carrots, and simmer for 5 minutes until just tender. Add all remaining vegetables and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.   Add cooked pasta and shredded chicken if using.   If there is not enough broth, add more or thin with water.  Add salt to taste.

Ladle into bowls, making sure to get the full spectrum in each, and top with a small sprinkle of fresh herbs.

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Market Day is far away

Wallowing in the doldrums of winter, I gaze longingly at my travel bookshelf and daydream about destinations to add to the short list.  Loving my cooking school adventure, but how do I not have a plane ticket to anywhere right now?  Here’s a link to an article on exotic global markets I wrote last fall for Wired.com:  http://www.wired.com/partners/marriott/2013/09/market-day-shop-like-a-local/

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I think my bucket list is calling…

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Back to School…

It’s about 20 years overdue, but thanks to the enormous (and ultimately self-serving?) support of my family, I am at last attending full-time professional culinary school (doesn’t that sound so official?) this winter.

I have loved cooking at home forever, and have been lucky enough to eat a lot of delicious and crazy food all over the world.  But cooking in a professional kitchen is definitely a new experience.  Not least of which is the super flattering uniform, ever smudged little apron and jaunty white students cap.  Very stylish…

(I was going to insert a first day of school pic here of my in my uniform but I just JUST can’t bring myself to do it…)

Really one of the greatest aspects of food for me is that there is ALWAYS something new to learn, even in realms I thought I had already mastered. So…here are a few core themes I have noted in my first month of cooking school:

Work clean – Move everything unnecessary out of your way as you are working, and clean your prep area, knives and other utensils as you go.

Think ahead – Envision your cooking process and select the mixing bowls, pans, or other items you need with the whole project in mind so you don’t have to keep switching equipment as you go.

Create a logical workflow – Streamline your set-up so you have everything you need in front of you, line up the steps of your project to minimize the amount of back and forth or running around you need to do.

Taste at every stage – In most cases we season food just before it goes on the plate, but don’t wait until the end to taste and adjust!  Yes I have been tasting a lot of raw eggs recently, but it’s kind of part of the deal.

Embrace salt – You can work for hours to layer amazing flavors into a dish, and then they’re overlooked for a simple lack of salt.

Technique is transferrable – If you learn the basics of how to execute something, you can go on to apply it to many different cuisines or preparations.

“Cook time” is a ballpark – Rely on your senses rather than just a recipe to determine if food is actually done cooking. There are a lot of variables between ovens, kitchens, and ingredients that will affect the exact time a dish needs to cook.

• It really is about ingredients – Every chef I have met spends a good chunk of time talking about the critical importance of using ingredients that have been well raised, farmed, treated, shipped, handled, delivered and just only finally prepared.  We hear this a lot in the media these days, but the bottom line is that for better or for worse the level of care, attention and even love that goes into your raw ingredients very much ends up on the plate.  

• Taste is subjective – Everyone has a slightly different experience of taste based on their physiology, genetics and memory/food experience. No two people experience taste exactly the same way. That said, you can train yourself to taste in more detail through trying lots of different things, giving a new food a few chances before you decide about it, and slowing down and being mindful of flavor, aroma and experience as you eat.

Cooking is a discipline – We always reference the “art” of cooking, but a lot of culinary success actually comes from practice, presence, focus, repetition and attention to detail.

More to come.   Happy cooking!

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Fall Dawn

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Is there anything more lovely and gratifying than a weekend away with old friends?  As I’m learning from friendship expert Shasta Nelson this week, “friendships don’t just happen,” they need time, attention and nurturing, and it’s not just a luxury to take time out to connect with each other.  It’s essential to our health, cathartic, reaffirming and it also creates time to reassess how things are going and lean on some shoulders if you need to.   Also for me it’s a great time to relax into the things that make me purely happy, which turn out to include adventuring in nature, having a long overdue belly laugh (when did I get so serious?), and of course cooking up a storm.

Also I love Healdsburg in the Fall.  The grapes and the olives are picked, the vines are a sea of vibrant yellow and orange, the days are gloriously sunny and bright with Fall sunshine, and the nights are crisp enough for a fire.  Wedding season is over, weekenders are ensconced in city affairs, even the bikers have thinned out.  It’s all peace and quiet and cozy all over the place.

So here are a couple of culinary mementos from my girlfriends weekend in the wine country.

Seasonal grilled cheese from the Jimtown Store (www.jimtown.com), whoopie pie from Moustache Baked Goods (moustachebakedgoods.com), spicy chai from Flying Goat Coffee (www.flyinggoatcoffee.com), fresh baked pastry and a fizzy strawberry “Shrub” from SHED (healdsburgshed.com) – (p.s. I am SO doing a whole post sometime about SHED – I am in love with this place).

Warm Lentils with Verjus

  • Black beluga lentils – simmered in water/broth al dente (not mushy!)
  • Small multicolored beets – roasted to tender, peeled and sliced into segments
  • Olive oil
  • Parsley, mint, other leafy herbs
  • Verjus *
  • Salt/pepper

* Verjus (“green juice”) is the unfermented pressed juice of unripened grapes and is sort of an alternative to vinegar.   We bought some at Medlock Ames winery in Alexander Valley, and I am thinking up more ways to use it.   It’s a little sweet, a little acidic, and sort of earthy at the same time.   I think it would be good with duck.  What else?

Padron peppers

  • Wash and dry
  • Saute in olive oil until blistered all over, puffed up but not burned
  • Toss with a squeeze of lime and fleur de sel

Fried olives - I plowed through three bowls of these at a long gone restaurant in North Beach years ago and still can’t get over them.

  • Tin of anchovy stuffed olives – drained (ok yes you can get green olives, pit them, create an anchovy/garlic/herb paste and painstakingly stuff them yourself, but come on people who has time – these still are delicious)
  • Toss in all purpose flour – you can use rice flour as a gluten free substitute, but I don’t think it comes out as well.
  • Fry in 1” of hot olive oil until crust is brown and crispy – eat as fast as you can – these puppies do not stick around!
  • This method creates a thin crispy crust.  If you want a thicker crust then do the flour/egg/breadcrumb method.  But I kind of like the thin version.

Happy Fall y’all!

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Adventures of a Fledgling Baker – Part 2

OK so every now and then when I don’t become unfocused, cut corners, lose stamina, get distracted by demanding grade schoolers, persistent email, Houzz, Etsy or any one of 10,000 other issues of varying degrees of urgency tugging for my attention, my ambitious projects actually come together.   Like the time I built a totally functional and zen-like fountain in my house all by myself.  Or like when, um, well that’s actually the only time I can think of right now.

Oh wait – or like when I baked my brother’s wedding cake last weekend and it came out PERFECT.  Like no kidding. Perfect.  Not lopsided.  Not flat.  Not tattered or sloppy.  Not patched together or reconfigured at the last minute at all.  In fact it came out:

Exactly.How.I.Meant.It.To.Be….

Shocking.

So here it is – three tiers – one gluten free.  Creamy white buttercream frosting.  Grosgrain ribbon and piped pearls.  Edible butterflies (from SugarRobot on Etsy).  Artsy topper (from CakeTopperConnection on Etsy).   And yummy.  Yummy.  Really – we just about ate the whole thing!

cake 2

TA DA!!

And most importantly of all – my brother and new sister-in-law’s wedding was a lovely affair at my parents’ home on a flawlessly beautiful afternoon with a small gathering of close friends and family.  It was an untraditional, super personal, very special day.  A day to filter out all distractions, be present and revel in the connections that are most important.  Here’s a shot of the dainty flower girls.

Flower girls

(And also did I mention there was cake?)

p.s. Guess what ELSE I did this week!?  I, fledgling baker, made chocolate-chip-coconut-pistachio-cranberry-oatmeal cookies on the spur of the moment for no reason at all!  Gluten free cookies even (you see, I have all this crazy alternative flour now…).  What’s next??

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Adventures of a Fledgling Baker – Part 1

Never one to shy away from adding a crazy project that I have no idea how to execute to the top of my To Do list in the middle of crunch back-to-school and launch-my-speaker-series season, I have volunteered to bake my brother’s wedding cake!

I am not a baker.  Not even cookies.  Not even Tollhouse cookies.   My annual contribution to Thanksgiving carbs has been lovingly coined “discuits” for their, um, notable lack of volume.  Puff pastry completely baffles me.  Even my beloved holiday popovers are often more like egg muffins (hey they taste good right?)

So of course it is a no-brainer that I should undertake a three tiered baked perfection (one gluten free of course), each with a unique flavor and coordinating filling, all mouthwateringly fluffy and perfectly stacked, frosted and piped into a glistening Mont Blanc of flawless beauty.   All irony aside, it is hands down the project I have been most looking forward to this fall…  And luckily my brother and his fiancé are pretty laid back so if it is more like the leaning tower of Pisa, they will hopefully chalk it up to a stab at creativity, no?

By the way – if you are ever insane enough to undertake a hairbrained project like this, I highly recommend stopping into Cake Art Supplies http://www.cakeartsupplies.com/ in San Rafael.  They know absolutely everything and will spend patient ages with you answering all sorts of naïve and uninformed questions, and providing every imaginable tool you will need to get the job done.

So here’s the play by play.  Actually – way too boring.  Baking cakes is not that interesting.   Here’s what I ended up with:

White cake on the bottom with fresh strawberries blended into white buttercream.   I probably should have added more powdered sugar to offset the strawberry juices, but since it was already on the cake when I realized this, I tossed it into the freezer and will hope for the best.

Gluten free chocolate cake: I emailed every cook I know, called some gluten free friends, spent about an hour in the bakery aisle (I bought: amaranth flour, xanthan gum, white rice flour, brown rice flour, potato starch, almond flour (whoops my brother is allergic to nuts – scratch that idea), sorghum flour and coconut oil), and meticulously whipped up a CERTIFIABLY gluten free creation.  It tasted a lot like grass with the texture of fine sand and a delicate soupcon of that stuff I add to my smoothies because I heard it fights cancer.

Then I went back to the store and got the King Arthur Flour’s gluten free chocolate cake mix which takes about 7 minutes to mix up, and it came out great.  Who will know?  (Well you will of course, but you most likely won’t be at the wedding and if you are, I’m assuming you have better manners than to mention it…)

Top layer is a tiny lemon cake (same as white cake but with lemon zest) filled with lemon curd (no I did NOT make it myself – the spendy store version is sooo good and now I have that extra jar for my high tea, ducky…).

I know you’re dying to know what happened next, but you’ll have to Stay Tuned: Cakes are wedged into my freezer between the perogies and the Vietnamese coffee nervously awaiting whatever decorative torture I have in store for them this weekend…

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Considering Couscous

For some reason I am extra loving couscous this summer…

Couscous is traditionally a North African product made from crushed durum or semolina wheat, rolled into pellets by hand and steamed in a special steamer called a couscoussiere.  I once had the unforgettable experience of watching the eminent Paula Wolfert hand roll couscous in the traditional method crouched on the floor using a special sieve – a fascinating but very labor intensive process.  These days it’s easy to find pretty good machine made couscous which is pre-steamed and dried, and it’s usually prepared by soaking in hot water or broth.  You can also steam it by lining your steamer basket with cheesecloth (so the small grains don’t fall through).

Near East seems to be the most widely available brand, and I have always had good luck with their plain version.  If you want to taste the real thing though, I recently discovered M’Hamsa hand rolled couscous.  It’s really a whole different experience!  They also have a version with dried red peppers that I haven’t tried yet.  You can find it online at http://www.southernseason.com

I also love Israeli couscous which is much bigger in size and is toasted, resulting in a chewier texture and nuttier flavor.   Try Red Mill Tricolor or my favorite is Fregola Sarda, produced by Rustichella d’Abruzzo available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Rustichella-Abruzzo-Fregola-Sarda-Package/dp/B000B38C6A

Couscous is traditionally served as a side dish to soak up wonderful tagines and stews, but I think it’s equally yummy with all sorts of herbs and veggies mixed right in, and I often use couscous to deliver healthy veggies to my kids.

Here’s an easy summer version we tossed together for a recent dinner.  You can easily see how you could creatively substitute in fresh herbs, tomatoes or other vegetables, saffron, a pinch of pimenton, alternate citrus fruits, fresh crumbled cheese or whatever else is at hand.  I’m sure I won’t make this the same way twice, but here’s a good place to start:

Summer Couscous

2 cups couscous
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
4 tablespoons olive oil
Zest and juice of one Meyer lemon
½ cup pitted green or calamata olives, chopped
Small bunch of parsley, chopped
½ cup sundried tomatoes, chopped
½ cup pine nuts
2 small zucchini, sliced into 1/4 inch thick slices
2 Tablespoons capers (or more to taste)
salt (optional)

Bring broth to a low boil in a small saucepan.  Melt butter in a medium saucepan, add couscous and sauté about 4 minutes until toasted and starting to brown.  Add hot chicken broth, stir, cover and remove from heat.  Set aside for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix 1 Tablespoon of oil, lemon zest and juice, olives, sundried tomato and parsley in a large metal or ceramic mixing bowl.   Heat a dry sauté pan over a medium flame.  Toast the pine nuts about 3-4 minutes until golden and pour into the mixing bowl.  In the same pan add 2 T olive oil and heat.  Add sliced zucchini and sauté until golden then add to the mixing bowl.

Add 1 T oil to the same pan and heat.  Carefully add the capers and fry them in the oil until crispy but not burned.  The capers will spit when you add them to the oil and can light on fire if you’re cooking on a gas stove.  Use a screen over the pan, or hold the lid of a pot in front of the pan to shield you from the oil until the spitting subsides.    Add capers to the bowl.

Take the lid off the couscous and gently fluff with a fork until no clumps remain.  Toss couscous in the bowl with remaining ingredients.  Taste all components together and add salt if needed.    Serves 4-6

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