Postcard from Valencia

Valencia orange tree

Yes, there were oranges.  Lots of them!

But what I’ll remember most about my trip to Valencia (aside from the sunshine and excellent company) is the 5-course lunch I had at the Seu Xerea “lounge restaurant.”  It was easily the best 12 Euros I have ever spent.  Delicious, fresh, high-quality, creative dishes fusing Mediterranean and Asian flavors.  I also discovered a fabulous Spanish beer in the process.  That’s my idea of a perfect meal…and the perfect prelude to a siesta.

First course:

octopus on polenta

Seared octopus with creamy polenta, sesame seeds, and chives

Second course:

mixed greens and chicken salad

Mixed greens with seared chicken breast, mung bean sprouts, radish, sesame vinaigrette, and citrus aioli

Third course:

fish curry

Green Thai fish curry with snow peas, mung bean sprouts, chives, coconut milk, and sea salt

Fourth course:

calamari lo mein

Asian “fideos,” i.e., lo mein with grilled calamari, shitake mushrooms, carrots, and bell peppers.

Fifth course:

Strawberry soup with basil ice cream

Strawberry soup with basil ice cream and sesame garnish

And to wash it all down:

Alahambra reserva 1925

An ice-cold Alahambra Reserva 1925, a delicious full-flavored amber lager

Muchas gracias, Valencia! I will never forget you.

Cooking Failures

Cooking something delicious is really much more satisfactory than painting pictures or making pottery.  At least for most of us.  Food has the tact to disappear, leaving room and opportunity for masterpieces to come.  The mistakes don’t hang on the wall or shelves to reproach you forever. -Jean Grigson, Good Things (1971)

I was chatting with a friend of mine recently who claimed I was just being modest when I insisted that, in fact, a number of my cooking projects fail horribly. So I thought it time to share the barely-fit-for-consumption, non-blogworthy side of things.  In no particular order, here’s a sampling of the failed, ugly, inedible, or otherwise disappointing things to come out of my kitchen.  Thank goodness they eventually disappeared. Consider yourself warned! cuban pork chops This sad dish was an unsuccessful hybrid of Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for Cuban-style pork chops and an ad-libbed recipe from my Cuban cooking instructor, which involved grapefruit juice.  A big “meh.” adobo chicken marinade My first attempt at Filipino chicken and pork adobo was another victim of the ad-libbed hybrid recipe.  The proportions  for soy sauce and vinegar were off in the main recipe I followed, and I made the fatal flaw of removing the chicken skin before cooking.  It was a sour, thin, bland mess. Gluten free almond bread This gluten-free almond meal bread from Cooking with Trader Joe’s was another disappointment.  Although the flavor was pleasantly nutty, the texture was way too heavy and dense.  It sat in my stomach like a rock.  I still feel guilty about the half loaf sitting neglected in my freezer.  I think separating and whipping the egg whites would help lighten things up, but someone else will have to try. Gramercy Tavern Gingerbread Cake Gramercy Tavern Gingerbread is renown for being delicious–and extremely difficult to get out of the pan.  I read all the recipe comments and was confident that my well-greased, amply-floured pan would release my gingerbread in the crucial moment.  Wrong.  It stuck miserably to the pan and the top of the cake tore off. Although it tasted fantastic, I won’t be making anything this sticky again until I have a heavy-duty, extremely non-stick bundt pan. eggplant stew Plain and simple: I did not heart Rachel Ray’s Eggplant Stew with Honey and Golden Raisin Polenta.  Can’t really blame Rachel; I’m just not a big fan of vegetarian vegetable stews.  The polenta was OK, but overall, this dish fell short of my high hopes. molasses cookies These molasses cookies were intended to be a homemade knockoff of Archway’s famous soft molasses cookies.  I learned the hard way with the first batch that dough would spread into a giant cookie blob unless the mounds were no bigger than 1 tablespoon and placed at least 2 inches apart.  I even tried refrigerating the dough to prevent spreading, but no dice.  The second batch (pictured above) turned out slightly better (i.e., not a mono-cookie), but  the texture was still more chewy, less cakey than I remember. Shallot Cherry Confit Martha Stewart’s shallot cherry confit was another disappointment.  I made a batch for a Thanksgiving potluck, but the end result was very, very tart and oniony. I suspect the problem is the recipe doesn’t specify to use commercially-sweetened dried cherries.  Let’s just say that my batch made with organic, unsweetened dried cherries required a lot of doctoring before it made an appearance at the party. Persian Baked ChickenAnother victim of my overzealous chicken-skinning: Persian roasted chicken with dried cherry-saffron rice.  (Note to self: don’t try to “lighten up” unfamiliar dishes before at least following the recipe once).  Also, I confused ground cumin and ground coriander (their names are somewhat similar in German), which made for strange seasoning.  I am sure the original recipe is much, much better, but at least my lighter take on the saffron rice was a success. Which is all to say: you win some; you lose some.  The important thing is to learn from your mistakes, cut your losses, and keep cooking.

Easy Rhubarb Custard Cake

rhubarb

chopped rhubarb sugar

It’s rhubarb season!  And as my friend Susan will tell you, “everyone should eat more rhubarb.”  Why not, when it’s so easy to make this sweet little cake highlighting summer’s best?

I’ve seen this described as rhubarb “tres leches” cake, and although it actually only contains dos leches, the fruit and cream do sink to the bottom and create a delectable custard.  We demolished several slices with friends recently and continued picking at pan scraps and “shaving” off corners to make the rest “more uniform.”  I take that as a good sign.

rhubarb cake

When the sight of neon pink and green stalks at the market finally proves irresistible, be sure to make this cake.  Enjoy!  And happy summer!

Yellow cake:

-1 1/4 (scant) c. all-purpose flour
-1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
-1/2 tsp. salt
-3/4 c. sugar
-1/4 c. oil
-1 egg
-2/3 c. milk
-1 tsp. vanilla extract

Fruit & custard layer:

-2 c. chopped rhubarb (about 3 large stalks)
-1/2 c. sugar
-1 c. whipping cream

1.  In a medium bowl, toss rhubarb with the 1/2 cup sugar.  Set aside.  Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease and flour an 8-in. round baking pan or large glass/ceramic baking dish.

2.  Prepare cake batter: whisk together flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder in a medium bowl.  In a larger bowl, mix eggs, vanilla extract, oil, and milk.  Slowly mix dry ingredients into wet until thoroughly combined.

3.  Pour cake batter into prepared pan.  Scatter chopped rhubarb and juices evenly across the top.  Pour the cream over top.

cake batter

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Chocolate Buttermilk Cake with Raspberry Sauce

chocolate cake raspberry sauce

A few weeks ago, I went on an Iron Chef-style mission to empty my fridge by cooking creatively.  With plans to leave town for the next 15 days, I did not want to come home to any nasty (green, fuzzy, smelly) surprises.  And I hate to waste food.

When I found a pint of buttermilk lurking in the fridge, I thought chocolate buttermilk cake might be the answer.  This recipe sounded promising but needed to be scaled down.  Although I was a little nervous about the success of my sketchy mathematics, I forged ahead.

chocolate cake batter

I shouldn’t have worried.  As my husband took his first bite, I asked, “Is it as good as the Guinness Chocolate Cake?”

“Better,” he said with a smile.

Iron Chef: 1; Waste: 0

This buttermilk chocolate cake is moist, dark, and moderately sweet.  Sweet-tart raspberry sauce and a bit of whipped cream are the perfect accompaniments.

chocolate cake raspberry sauce

(Adapted from “P@perseed)

For the cake:

-1 c. all-purpose flour
-3/4 c. sugar
-1 1/3 tsp. baking soda
-1/4 tsp. salt
-1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Dutch-process)
-1/3 c. + 1 Tbsp. oil
-1/2 c. buttermilk
-1 large egg
-1/2 c. strong, hot coffee
-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract Continue reading

Honey Oatmeal Bread

honey wheat loaf bread white

Yeast can be intimidating.  It’s a living organism, and as such, can be temperamental. Forget a packet in the fridge for a couple months, and it may commit suicide. Mix it with too-hot liquid, and you can kiss it goodbye.  And as I recently learned, if you neglect a batch of yeast dough for too many hours, bad things can happen.

overproofed bread doughWhen it comes to rising, bigger is not always better.  Don’t let your yeast go crazy like this.

A good rule of thumb in baking is that it pays to follow the directions.  Yeast is no exception.  Knowing its finnicky reputation, I tackled this honey oatmeal bread with trepidation. The first time I made it, I whipped up a batch shortly before dinner. Since it was my first time, I followed the directions closely. It turned out great, with a lovely loaf shape and a faintly sweet, creamy crumb.   The oatmeal gave it some heft, without making it too dense. Bread nirvana!

honey oat wheat loaf oatmeal white bread

The second time I tried the recipe with more time to kill and ignored the specified rising times.  A little longer couldn’t hurt, right?

Wrong.

I ended up with a flat-topped, funky, yeasty-tasting loaf.  Was it edible?  Sure. But pretty—or scrumptious?  Definitely not.  Oh, the disappointment.

I’ve made this bread three more times following the directions and finally have the hang of it.  If I, the baking-challenged, can tame the wild yeast beast, you can too.  So have no fear.

Just be sure to follow the directions.

oatmeal wheat bread slice

This is my favorite bread recipe so far.  I hope you love it as much as I do. Special thanks to TrishUntapped for sharing the inspiring recipe.

(Adapted from Kitchen Aid, via TrishUntapped)

-3/4 c. water
-1/4 c. honey
-2 Tbsp. butter
-3 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting (can substitute up to 1 c. whole wheat flour)
-1/4 c. quick-cooking oats, plus more for sprinkling on top
-1 tsp. salt
-1 (1/4 oz.) package active dry yeast
-2 eggs, divided
-1 Tbsp. water

1. Heat the 3/4 cup water, honey, and butter in small saucepan on low heat until very warm (ideally 120-130F).

2. Place flour, oats, salt and yeast in mixer bowl. Mix on low speed 15 seconds or until combined.

3. Using dough hooks, gradually mix in honey-butter mixture. After one minute, add ONE whole egg and mix one minute longer.

4. Continue mixing 2 minutes more, or until dough clings to hook and cleans side of bowl. Mix 2 minutes longer until dough is smooth, elastic, and all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated.

5. Using a spatula, scrape any dough clinging to the sides of the bowl. Shape the dough into a round with the spatula.  Cover bowl with a damp towel (not terry cloth) or plastic wrap.

6. Let rise in warm, draft-free place about 1 hour, or until nearly doubled. The dough is ready when you press two fingers into it, and it holds the indentation (see below).

Testing dough readiness

7. Gently punch down dough. With a rolling pin, roll out into a rectangle on a floured cutting board or counter top. Roll up from the short end like a jelly roll and tuck the ends under.

rolling out bread dough Continue reading

Key Lime Raspberry Tart with Pistachio Crust

key lime raspberry pie torte

Dear Diary,

I think I’ve found “The One.” This key lime tart might just be my dessert soul mate. Its sophisticated looks and great taste are irresistible. Although we had a whirlwind romance, this feels like true love. I can hardly believe I’ve found so many of my favorite flavors in one dessert. Cancel my Tastespotting subscription; I’m set. This is it.

key lime pie raspberry torte

Admittedly, I’ve always had a crush on key lime pie. The Libra in me is drawn to that perfect balance of tangy citrus and creamy custard. But add a scarlet ribbon of raspberry jam, and [...sigh...] I go weak in the knees. Swap out the graham cracker crust for a crumbly pistachio-butter-cookie base, and I start thinking maybe you can have it all. This tart? It’s the whole package.

raspberry jam

roasted shelled pistachios

Man, I’ve got it bad. But what’s the use in fighting something that’s meant to be? Let’s fall in love!

Our next date? A delicious rendezvous after Easter dinner.

crust

(Adapted from Martha Stewart and Thursday Night Smackdown)

For the crust:

-4 Tbsp. melted butter, plus more for the pan
-2/3 c. roasted, shelled pistachios (salted is OK)
-5 oz. of butter cookies (I used German Butterkeks, which are not as oily as shortbread)
-1/4 c. sugar (I used raw/demerera)

For the filling:

-1/2 c. fresh-squeezed lime juice (preferably key lime juice, or the juice of 5-6 regular limes)
-2 egg yolks
-14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

-6 Tbsp. best-quality raspberry jam (I used Den Gamle)

1.  Preheat oven to 375F. Grease a 9-in. springform pan or pie plate with butter. (An 8×8-in. square pan would also work.)

2.  In a blender or food processor, finely grind the cookies and pistachios.  In a medium bowl, mix with the melted butter and 1/4 c. sugar using your hands.

Butterkeks German butter cookies

crumb crust torte base

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Simple Lentil Soup with Brown Butter (Dispatches from French Cooking Class)

lentil soup

I started taking French cooking classes at my local community college, and it’s been the calorie-rich highlight of my weeks. Because the course is conducted in German, I not only get to learn the finer points of butter and egg yolks, I can also practice my umlauts. It’s been a great experience, and I wanted to share the highlights with you here. Think of this as French cooking class light: all of the good stuff, none of the overcooked chicken livers.

So far, the dish that has impressed me most was one of the easiest.  I mean, really, who gets excited about lentil soup? Sometimes I feel like despite the massive number of ingredients and herbs I throw in, it’s just uninspiring.

brown lentils

Leave it to the French to elevate the humble brown lentil.

Well, this French lentil soup has taught me the wisdom in keeping it simple. Its flavor is practically the inverse of the time and ingredients involved.  Not only is it easy to make and flavorful, I like it enough that I’d serve it to company. The French must be on to something.  They know a) how to extract the most flavor from a few key ingredients, and b) not to muddle up dishes with too many herbs and competing flavors.

Simple, non?

Without further ado, here’s the recipe.  I’d love to keep talking it up, but it’s a rare sunny day in Berlin, and the sidewalks are calling my name!  I’ll report back with more French hits soon.

soup bowl

-3/4 c. brown lentils (or French green “du Puy” lentils; I’ve made it both ways), rinsed and picked over
-1 sm. onion, chopped
-2 strips bacon, chopped
-2 Tbsp. butter, divided
-2-3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar, divided
-3 1/3 c. vegetable broth, warm
-1/2 bunch fresh parsley
-3 sprigs fresh thyme
-handful of celery tops, optional
-scant 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
-freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. In a medium pot on medium-low heat, sauté the chopped bacon to render some of the fat, about 2 min. Keep the heat low so that the bacon does not get crispy. Add the chopped onion and 1/2 tablespoon butter and sweat until translucent.

2. Add the broth, 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, and the lentils to the pot. Cover and simmer 20 minutes.

3. Add the parsley (whole), thyme sprigs, and celery tops to the pot. Simmer covered 10-15 minutes more, or just until the lentils are tender. Check doneness occasionally to prevent overcooking.

4. In a small saucepan or skillet, brown the remaining 1 1/2 Tbsp. butter. Set aside.  It should be a deep golden brown, but not black. Continue reading

Coq au Vin (French Chicken in Red Wine Sauce)

coq au vin

Just look at the list of ingredients:

Bacon.  Butter.  Mushrooms.  Wine.  Brandy.  Chicken.

Coq au vin basically sells itself.  Sure, I could rhapsodize about the melt-in-your-mouth chicken and seared mushrooms bathed in rich, tangy wine sauce.  But I trust you to recognize a good thing.  No hard sell needed.

pearl onions mushrooms

Coq au vin is a classic for a reason. Ever since Julia Child ignited the craze for French food in the 1960s, Americans have greedily slurped up this heady stew and asked for seconds.  Yes, it is a bit labor-intensive, but the end result is completely worth it.  The next time you need an impressive dish for a dinner party or special occasion, think retro.  No, think classic.  Think coq au vin.

coq au vine detail chicken stew

(Adapted from Nigel Slater)

-1 large chicken, cut into 6 or 8 pieces, or 1 small chicken plus two leg quarters (save back and innards if you intend to make your own broth)
-8 strips of thick-cut bacon, sliced into thick matchsticks, or 150 g. pre-cut lardons
-2 med. yellow onions, roughly chopped
-2 med. carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
-2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
-3 cloves garlic, minced
-3 Tbsp. flour, divided
-4 Tbsp. brandy or Cognac, divided
-leaves from 4-5 sprigs thyme
-3 bay leaves
-3/4 bottle red wine (approx. 2 1/4 c.)
-1 1/2 c. chicken broth, preferably homemade
-1-2 Tbsp. butter, if needed
-1 c. small “boiler” or “pearl” onions or small shallots, peeled
-1/2 lb. mushrooms (I used crimini), cleaned and halved if large
-salt and pepper, to taste
-chopped parsley, for garnish

coq au vin ingredients

1.  Rinse the chicken and trim of excess skin and fat.  Dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.  Now is a good time to make your chicken broth or bring some prepared broth to a bare simmer in a saucepan.

2.  In a large, heavy pot, fry the bacon pieces on medium heat until lightly golden.  Remove to a bowl with a slotted spoon, leaving the drippings behind.

3.  Put the chicken in the pot, skin-side down, and let cook undisturbed until golden.  Flip and brown the other side.  Remove to a plate, leaving the drippings behind.

browned chicken piecescolor = flavor

4.  Lower the heat and add the carrots, celery, and onions, cooking until the onions soften. Stir in the garlic. Then sprinkle the veggies with 2 tablespoons flour and stir, cooking 90 seconds more.

onion carrot celery

5.  Return the chicken pieces and their juices to the pot.  Add the bacon, then pour over 2 tablespoons of brandy.

6.  Add the wine, bay leaves, thyme, and enough broth to barely cover the chicken.

coq au vin

7.  Bring just to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook partially covered for about 40 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.  Remove the chicken to a bowl.

8.  Raise the heat to high and begin reducing the sauce.  Use a spoon to (carefully) skim off the grease that accumulates around the edges of the sauce, discarding all but 2-3 tablespoons.  Put the reserved grease in a metal skillet or medium pot (do not use non-stick) and set aside.

9.  If desired, thicken the reduced sauce with a slurry of 1 tablespoon of flour whisked with 2 tablespoons of water.  Return the chicken pieces to the sauce, first removing the skin (if you like).  Correct the seasoning and keep warm.

10.  Heat skimmed fat in the pot/skillet on high.  If there is not enough fat to cover the bottom, add the butter.  Add the mushrooms and let brown undisturbed for 2 or 3 minutes.  Now add the small onions and sauté 2 min. more.  Season with salt and pepper.

11.  Have matches or a lighter handy.  Pour 2-3 tablespoons of brandy into a cup.  Very carefully, pour the brandy over the mushrooms and onions. Immediately set the mushrooms and onions on fire, averting your head for safety.  Shake the pan until the alcohol burns off and the flames die out. Continue cooking until the onions are just tender, adding a little water if needed.

onions and mushrooms

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Blueberry “Avatar” Muffins

blueberry muffin

What in the world makes these “Avatar” muffins,  you ask?

Let’s just say that if James Cameron’s blue characters were looking for the perfect camouflage muffins to eat on the go, they needn’t look further.   Oh, alright, fine: I made these muffins with weepy frozen blueberries, which dyed the batter a swirly blue.

avatar characters blue

Image via thefilmtalk.com

But I like to think these blueberry muffins are lovable in their imperfection.  Just like your best friend or that favorite chipped coffee cup you refuse to toss out. You know which one I mean.  Simple, straightforward, and good.

blueberry muffin interior

These blueberry muffins are homey and comfortable—ideal for savoring over a cup of coffee and the morning newspaper. They’re moist, fluffy, and just sweet enough without veering into dessert territory.  Plus, they’re loaded with lots of bright fruit (you know how I feel about getting color into our diets).  If you want to ramp up the nutrition even more, you could substitute whole wheat pastry flour or quick-cook oats for a bit of the white flour.  Should you prefer non-Pandoran muffins, just use fresh blueberries, which bleed less than frozen.

(Adapted from Alton Brown via Thyme for Food)

-11 oz (2 1/4 c.) all-purpose flour
-2 tsp. baking powder
-1 tsp. baking soda
-1/8 tsp. salt
-3/4 c. sugar (I used demerera/raw)
-1/2 c. vegetable oil
-1 egg
-1 egg yolk
-1 c. plain yogurt (approx. 1 3/4 containers)
-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
-1/2 tsp. almond extract, optional
-2 c. blueberries

muffin ingredients

1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease a 12-count muffin tin.  Alternately, you could fill the muffin tin with liners and then spray those with baking spray.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Remove 1 tablespoon of the flour mixture and toss with the blueberries in a separate bowl.  (This reduces sinking while baking.)

blueberries with flour

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, egg and yolk, yogurt, and extracts.

4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, stirring just until barely combined. Do not mix completely, or your muffins will be tough and flat.

muffin batter

Stop stirring!

5. Fold in the blueberries and any residual flour just until evenly dispersed. Do not overmix.

6. Drop the batter into the 12 muffin cups, filling to the top. Bake 17-20 min., or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

batter in muffin tins

blueberry muffins

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