Monday, December 13, 2010

Foraging with chef Randy Rucker

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We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day when fourteen eager food-centric men and women gathered at Bootsie’s Heritage Café in Tomball, Texas.  Inspired by local chef Randy Rucker, we met with a purpose - to bring out the gatherer in us.  Inherent in humans since the beginning of time, it’s an activity largely lost to us today due to industrialization and a small but very powerful number of corporations that control our food supplies and have in many cases sucked all semblance and nutritional value from our food…if you haven’t seen Food, Inc. yet, do so immediately!  

On a positive note, a shift to a local and sustainable culture is gaining momentum with Farmer’s Markets popping up everywhere in the nation.  Chef Monica Pope coined it best: eat where your food lives!   A sweet vine-ripened tomato grown in your own garden or by a local farmer will be far superior tasting to one that has travelled thousands of miles.  Oh yeah, and it’s better for the local economy and the environment.  Consider fruit from Chile - it travels some 4,000 to 5,000 miles to get to your grocery store.  In many cases it is harvested unripe, coated in wax and treated to retard its ripening…hello green bananas! 

A leader in promoting local produce and meat, Randy Rucker talks about the local terroir.   Terroir is the French work for “land” originally used by the wine industry to describe the flavors the soil imparts on grape vines and ultimately the wines produced from those grapes.   Animals raised for food that eat what the terroir produces taste better.  When cooked and accompanied by local vegetables in season, Mother Nature’s ultimate gift for nourishment and healing is gained. 

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So it is with foraging.   Wild, edible plants offer a range of flavors and benefits.   It was at one of Randy’s Tenacity dinners last year that I discovered peppery - sour wood sorrel and purslane, which imparted a distinct lemon flavor.   Enthusiastic about his vocation, Randy’s vision for his restaurant is that it is “consistently inconsistent”.   With an emphasis on the freshest food, Randy and his young crew forage several times a week.  He is also training his chefs to not only update the restaurant menu daily, but hourly.  He shuns fixed menus, claiming that there is only a short window of time that vegetables, once harvested, are at their peek.

A heartwarming breakfast of house-made venison sausage, soft-boiled eggs, biscuits and gravy prepared us for the brisk but sunny weather outdoors.  After a short introduction to the area and perusal of a website by local forager Merriwether, we were confident that we would find many edible native treasures.  Our first stop was Burroughs Park, a gorgeous 320-acre enclave offering many amenities, including a beautiful wooded area with winding trails. 

David, Kelsey, chef Randy and Chuck examine the terroir.

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This Beautyberry cluster lives up to its name.  Eaten raw, pickled or made into jelly, beautyberries can also be made into wine.  

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Edible Lichen must be boiled to neutralize its high acid content.

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We also found Bittercress, Chickweed and Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot).  Below, Wood Sorrel…found in my front yard the next morning!

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Tiny dollarweed can be hard to find but is very pretty on a plate.

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Chuck was determined to find sassafras – and he did at the very end of our expedition.  The leaves of the sassafras come in three distinct shapes.  When dried and ground to a powder, it is know as filé.  Added to gumbo at the end of cooking, it enhances the flavors of the stew with its earthiness.  The root is used to make tea and root beer. 

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Our next stop was “the farm”, a large plot with several organic beds and fruit and nut trees.  Crops are rotated annually to maintain the soil’s high nutrient levels. 

A pea plant

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I’m holding the largest and most beautiful bunch of lettuce I have ever seen!  In the absence of a grocery bag, I made a pouch of my sweater.  I stuffed it with bok choy, borage, kale and green beans!  It was a highly fruitful and edifying day!



Friday, November 5, 2010

Szechuan eggplant with pork and hot bean sauce

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My friend Chantal and I were feeling pretty relaxed and rejuvenated after our acupuncture sessions recently.   We left with instructions to refrain from touching our right ears for a couple of hours.   Do you know that your ears alone have dozens of reflex points that address a myriad of ailments including hypertension, nervous disorders and inflammation?   The bursa in my shoulder felt great after being stimulated by a dozen or so tiny needles and we decided on a casual lunch in nearby Chinatown.  

Le Lai Restaurant is situated in the old Dynasty Plaza shopping mall on Bellaire.   One of the original Chinese malls built long before the massive expansion of Chinatown in west Houston, Dynasty Plaza is now in desperate need of a facelift inside and out.   For now, it seems to be holding its own against umpteen spiffy malls nearby, thanks to an old and loyal clientele.

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In Le Lai Restaurant, we noticed that were were the only Caucasians present – not an unusual sight considering the size of Houston’s Chinese community.   It is also a great indicator that were about to enjoy an authentic Chinese meal!   A large menu foreign to us both was posted at the counter but our table menus provided us with translations.   Service was terse and brisk and our order of whole fried fish and Szechwan eggplant was delicious.   At $4.50 per lunch plate, our bill came to $9.89 including tax.  To our surprise Chantal’s iced tea, my jasmine tea and two bowls of soup were included for free - quite a bargain!   We were quite satisfied until… 

An Oriental woman walked towards the exit, paused beside our table and smiled at us.  We were somewhat surprised to be acknowledged by this little old lady.   Before she disappeared through the door she gibed sarcastically,  “Cheaper than McDonald’s, eh?” 

Her question took several stunned seconds to digest.   We looked at each other in dismay and sheer disbelief.    We were obviously the result of a common stereotype that all Americans eat at McDonald’s.    We have never taken to fast food since we both grew up in foreign lands and are accomplished cooks.   Much of our friendship revolves around dining on gourmet food and wine, cooking and experimenting in the kitchen.   Heck, our meals and desserts are all made from scratch; my husband and I tend a vegetable garden every year; and for the Chinese lady’s information I make pasta, filo dough for strudel and even her native homeland’s dumplings from scratch!

Stereotypes about the eating habits of groups of people are unfortunate but very prevalent.   We all have them in varying degrees.   Had the old Chinese lady kept hers to herself she would not have shown herself to be ignorant and rude and we would have ended our meal on a more positive note. 

Bad vibes aside, here’s a recipe Chantal shared with me that she learned from Dorothy Huang, a local cooking instructor and author.   It’s important to have all of the ingredients ready before you start to cook as tender Japanese eggplant cooks quickly.   Here it is coated in a rich sweet and spicy brown sauce.

Szechwan Eggplant with pork and hot bean sauce

adapted from Dorothy Huang’s Chinese Cooking

Serves 2

Seasoning sauce:

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons chicken stock

2 tablespoons hot bean sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon dry sherry

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Mix all of the ingredients listed for the seasoning sauce in a small bowl.  


Have all of the following ingredients ready before cooking:

1½ pounds Japanese eggplant (the long, slender kind with thin skins)

3 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon minced ginger root

2 teaspoons minced garlic

¼ pound lean ground pork

salt, to taste

½ cup chicken broth

2 green onions, chopped

Rinse the eggplant.  If they are small, the peel will be tender and you do not have to peel them; if they are large with a tough skin, peel them first.  Cut eggplant into 1/2 inch chunks.

Heat oil in a wok over high heat.  Add ginger root, garlic and ground pork; stir for 1 minute.

Add eggplant and salt, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add chicken broth, turn heat to medium, cover and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or more.

Add seasoning sauce and chopped green onions; stir until thickened and serve with steamed rice.

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Asparagus, tomato and Gruyère tart

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This colorful vegetable tart is the reason favorite Daughter is hooked on asparagus!   I came across this simple recipe in Martha’s vast recipe collection several years ago and it has been requested many times.   Served as an appetizer or main dish when accompanied with a soup or salad, this tart has a handful of ingredients and is very easy to prepare  – it fits right into a young lady’s busy college schedule.  

I have been fortunate to have children that love vegetables.  We were never a fast-food family as that option was not available to my parents in South Africa when I was little.   My kids ate what was served at our dinner table and our extended family feasts from the get-go.   I was spared the drama of picky eaters and watched their friends exhibit some strange behaviors.  One young neighbor never ate at our home.   He subsisted on a diet of chicken nuggets alone.   I’m sad to see that he is now an obese young man.   Another young girl asked me what that whole bird was I had sitting in a roasting pan.  It was a chicken… And I once come across a kid at the check-out counter that could not recognize broccoli (!) so he couldn’t look up the PLU code.   It’s no wonder we are now in the midst of a health crisis with no change in sight.

When it comes to asparagus,  I always buy the bunch with the thinnest spears and fresh buds.    It’s just a personal preference, but any thickness is good.   An excellent provider of Vitamin K, folate, Vitamins C and A, asparagus is also a natural diuretic and is high in antioxidants.

This recipe combines the flavors or asparagus and Swiss-made Gruyère cheese.  They pair beautifully together and it’s no wonder – they are both common items in the Swiss kitchen.  Here I have added sliced cherry tomatoes to the mix for a beautiful and delicious presentation.

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Asparagus, tomato and Gruyère tart  adapted from a recipe by Martha Stewart

a little flour for the work surface

1 sheet frozen puff pastry

5½ ozs (2 cups) Gruyère cheese, grated

1½ pounds thin or medium asparagus

8 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

1 tablespoon olive oil

salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400ºF.

On a floured surface, roll the puff pastry into a 16-by-10-inch rectangle.  Trim uneven edges.  Place pastry on a baking sheet (I line mine with a silpat).  With a sharp knife, lightly score pastry dough 1 inch in from the edges to mark a rectangle.  Using a fork, pierce dough inside the markings at 1/2-inch intervals.

Sprinkle pastry with Gruyère.  Trim the bottoms of the asparagus spears to fit crosswise inside the tart shell. Arrange asparagus and tomato halves in a single layer over Gruyère.  Brush with oil and season with salt and pepper.  Bake until spears are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes.

Cut tart with a pizza cutter into desirable pieces.  Serve hot.

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Make sure you sprinkle some cheese on the edges too! 

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sōté seasoned salmon, roasted Hatch pepper sauce and Jicama mango ‘slaw’

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I was introduced to a great seasoning blend after a volunteer stint recently.  If you are a Houston Chowhound, you are undoubtedly thinking about food most of your waking hours.   Which vendor has the freshest seafood?   Which taco truck is conveniently located on your errand route?   Where to savor your next gourmet meal?   So it was no surprise to me when a fellow civically-minded Chowhound organized a meeting of our food-obsessed minds at the Houston Food Bank early one Saturday morning.  

After a short tour of the facility, we entered the vast kitchen.   A thorough hand-washing followed, and then we donned the oh-so-flattering hairnets, plastic aprons and gloves and formed two long assembly lines.   I was in first position in my line, separating individual containers and portioning out handfuls of ice-cold spaghetti from an enormous bin to my right.   My friend Maureen followed with a piece or two of chicken, and the rest in line scooped vegetables, sauce, parmesan, fresh basil (yes fresh basil) and lastly, canned fruit.   By the time each container reached Gary, Maureen’s husband,  it was pretty greasy and sticky.  Gary was responsible for one of the ‘sealing machines’ and tried gallantly to keep the plastic wrap in position so that it could form a tight seal on each tray before it was carted off to the freezer.   Fortunately for us he is mechanically inclined and in less than three hours we had assembled almost 1,000 wholesome meals!

To my left was a quiet gentleman named Larry.   He was not part of our assembly line.  He had a special spot at the head of the table and was our designated “basil chopper”.   Larry wowed us with his superior knife skills by mincing bushels of basil for the spaghetti dinners we were packaging.   I later found out that his ‘gramma’ Douglas developed a recipe for a delicious Kosher seasoning named Sōté. 


Sōté, pronounced So-tay, stands for “salt of the earth”.    The Serb in me and my knowledge of Cyrillic loves the use of diacritic marks in the label!   Sōté is a mixture of Kosher salt, black pepper, paprika, garlic, chilli, ginger, spice extract, turmeric and other spices.   It is not spicy and contains no MSG.   Salt is King here and the accompanying spices dance delicately around him.  

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Larry gifted me with a few containers to share with friends and family (disclaimer: I am not making a dime as I promote it).   I have used it on baby back ribs and flatiron steaks with great results.    Sōté is also suitable for vegetables but be forewarned that it is mostly salt so a little sprinkle goes a long way.   I lightly sprinkled the salmon in my recipe below and paired it with a homemade roasted Hatch pepper sauce for a little fire and a sweet and crunchy jicama salad – the pairings were excellent!     

Sōté is locally produced (another positive point in my mind) and packaged by the Texas Custom Spice Company in Houston.   The packaging is understated and comes in a well-sealed metal container with a see-through lid.  To order Sōté, click on the link.   Also for sale are cool t-shirts and salt shakers.  

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Sōté rubbed salmon with Hatch pepper sauce and Jicama mango slaw

Serves 2

¾ lb salmon filet

Sōté seasoning or seasoning of your choice

1 tablespoon olive oil

Pat salmon dry with a paper towel to remove any moisture. Rub a little Sōté seasoning on the salmon, remembering that the Sōté is mostly salt.

Pour olive oil into an oven-proof pan or cast iron skillet. Heat pan over medium heat until the oil is very hot. Carefully add the salmon, skin side down. Cover with a splatter shield if necessary to prevent oil from splashing everywhere. Sauté salmon until the edges begin to turn color, about 5 – 6 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the broiler. Remove pan with salmon from heat and place under broiler for 2 minutes to sear the top. Remove pan from oven using an oven mitt. Serve with Hatch pepper green sauce and Jicama mango slaw.

Hatch pepper sauce

¼ cup mayonnaise

¼ cup sour cream

1 roasted Hatch pepper (spicy or not), skin removed, stemmed and seeded

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

¼ cup lightly packed cilantro leaves

1 peeled and chopped Roma tomato

Place all ingredients in a small blender and blend until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Jicama mango ‘slaw’

½ lb jicama, peeled and julienned (use the mandoline for this if you have one)

1 mango, peeled, sliced thin and then longwise into thin strips

8 radishes, sliced thinly (here again, the mandoline comes in handy)

1/3 cup red onion, sliced thin

¼ cup cilantro, chopped

4 tablespoons fresh orange juice

4 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon sesame oil

salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Chill until ready to serve.  Serve using tongs to drain slaw from the juices.


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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hatch chilies in scalloped potatoes and gruyere cheese

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If ever there is too short a season for a flavorful vegetable it has to be Hatch pepper season.  Two to three weeks is all we get and if you’re not paying attention, you might miss the call of these extraordinary chilies.  The arrival of Hatch chilies from New Mexico around mid-August is a much anticipated event in Houston.   It’s when my favorite grocery stores, Central Market and H.E.B roll out the rotating cages, crank up the fires and for a few lively weeks excite our senses during the Hatch Chile Festival. 

The aroma of roasting Hatches emanating from the parking lots act as a magnet to pepper lovers miles away.   As if we haven’t already perspired enough through the hot and humid summer, the Hatch heat index sweats our foreheads and clears our sinuses with spice levels from mild to very hot.   Live music adds to the festivities and a feeling of merriment and well-being follows!   In what must be a highly lucrative operation, Central Market has included Hatch chilies in products such as sausage, guacamole, meatballs, crab cakes, tortilla chips, bread and even granola and brownies.   They know a good thing when they see it!

A good char intensifies the deep rich green flesh and easily releases the thin skin.  Because the Hatch’s flesh is delicate, a quick tumble in the cage over flames for only 7 –10 minutes is all it takes.   I let the experts roast mine every year and purchase several pounds.  They freeze well and I plan to enjoy them in soups, stews and omelets for months to come.  

Hatch chilies are not a seed variety but are named after the village of Hatch in southern New Mexico around which they are farmed.  Considered to be the chili capital of the world, the area exports over 250,000 chilies to Texas alone!   For a recent family gathering I decided to add chopped roasted hatch peppers to scalloped potatoes.    The chilies complemented the sharpness of the gruyere, and the cream…enough said!  

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Hatch chilies in scalloped potatoes and gruyere cheese

8 russet potatoes, peeled, sliced crosswise as thin as possible. This is a good time to use a mandoline slicer, if you own one.

4 cups whipping cream or half-and-half

5 -6 roasted Hatch chilies (spicy or mild), peeled, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

8 ounces gruyere cheese, coarsely grated

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Have a 9 x 13 casserole dish ready. Pour about 2 tablespoons of cream or half-and-half on the bottom of the dish and spread evenly.

Arrange potato slices evenly in a layer on the bottom of the dish. The potatoes should be touching but not overlapping each other. Sprinkle about 1 – 2 tablespoons of chilies on top of the potatoes. Sprinkle about ¼ cup of gruyere cheese on top of the chilies and potatoes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour about ½ cup of cream or half-and-half over cheese.

Continue layering potatoes, chilies, cheese, salt, pepper and cream. End with a layer of potatoes and then gruyere cheese. Pour the rest of the cream over the potatoes.

Heat oven to 400ºF. Cover the potatoes with foil. Bake for 1 hour.

After an hour, remove the foil. Bake for another 10 minutes or until the potatoes are soft when pricked with a fork, the cream is set and the top is nicely browned.

Remove from the oven and allow potatoes to rest for about 10 minutes.

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Shrimp salad with avocado and radish sprouts

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I came across something beautiful in the grocery store that I had never seen before – radish sprouts.   Easily overlooked amidst the bigger and bolder green vegetables, these lovely delicate young shoots from the daikon radish remind me of the shamrock clover.   Growing happily together in high concentrations (each determined to be the tallest) a fresh bunch will surely cheer your soul! 

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If you love spicy radishes, you’ll love radish sprouts.  Their bright green heart-shaped leaves look innocent enough, but they pack a fair amount of spice – enough to clear the sinuses!   They house a significant amount of Vitamins C, B6 and A due to the fact that they are germinating seeds.   Potassium is abundant, and in 5 - 6 days of rapid-fire growth the sprouts can reach 8 inches.    Since a sprout is the beginning of a larger vegetable, higher levels of enzymes and photochemical compounds are present within their small bodies.   The are therefore considered by many to be a ‘miracle food’.  

Sprouts can be grown year round with little attention.  Too delicate to be cooked, they are a brilliant addition to salads and sandwiches, wraps and spring rolls.  

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The tender roots barely take hold of the moist medium underneath, as lanky stems support leaf tops. 082 v1

Shrimp, avocado and radish sprout salad

Serves 4 as a first course

12 Jumbo shrimp, shelled and deveined

1 cup boiled, diced potato

½ red pepper, diced

1 avocado, peeled, seeded and diced

½ cup radish sprouts

marinade and dressing (below)

a few long chive leaves or 1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped

Marinade (and dressing)

1½ tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice

1½ tablespoons red wine vinegar

¼ cup tightly packed radish sprouts

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon sugar

salt, to taste

For the marinade and dressing:

Place all ingredients in a small food processor and blend until sprouts are finely chopped and the mixture comes together.  Place shrimp in a medium bowl.  Add 3 tablespoons of the sprout mixture to the shrimp.  Marinate shrimp for about 20 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.  Set aside the left over mixture to be used as a dressing.

Marinate the shrimp first

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Grill or broil shrimp until cooked tender, about 3 minutes on each side.  Discard shrimp marinade. 

You can either layer the salad in martini glasses, or in individual bowls.  Layer as follows.

Bottom to top: diced potatoes, diced red pepper, a little dressing, shrimp, fresh sprouts, avocado, more dressing.  Stick the chive leaves in for a dramatic presentation or chop them up and sprinkle on top of the salad.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fresh fig, gorgonzola and prosciutto salad with lemon-honey dressing

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Dried figs are a year round treat, but when July rolls around I get giddy with anticipation for fresh figs.   Knowing my passion for figs (my blog header tells all) my dear husband gifted me with three trees that are finally producing enough of their precious fruit so that I can satisfy my craving!   I’m a lucky girl!   I’ve beaten the pesky birds and bugs many mornings to enjoy them fresh off the tree, standing in the shade created by their large leaves.  Restraint was difficult, but restrain myself I did!  I saved a batch and made fig ice cream to die for, fig chutney (recipe will come soon) and several fig-inspired salads. 

If you ask me, there is no sweeter or more luscious fruit than a perfectly ripe and juicy black fig.   Technically not a fruit, the fig is actually a flower that is inverted into itself    The skin starts firm and green but ripens to a delicate covering for the pulp within - soft tiny flowers that house its unique nectar.    The skin is actually stem tissue and the pulp is comprised of male and female flower parts with tiny sandy grains that are actually unfertilized ovaries.  The fig was revered by Greek and Roman gods and considered an aphrodisiac and is likened by many a poet to female sexual organs.  Lovely analogy!

Pity me that the season for fresh figs is so short!   Other than their delicious taste, they provide us with numerous benefits:  one cup (149g) contains 58% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of dietary fiber!   Also, 38% of RDA of Manganese, an important enzyme activator;  29% of vitamin K for healthy blood clotting;  29% of Potassium for healthy muscles and nerves;  25% Magnesium and Calcium for strong bones, muscles and blood flow.  And if you’re very active, there’s a substantial amount of natural sugar to keep you moving for a long time!

In my salad, piquant gorgonzola cheese is a perfect match for a syrupy fig.   Add savory prosciutto and you have a winning trifecta!

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Fresh figs are best eaten or cooked immediately, or refrigerated for a minimal time (I’d say two days max.).    Since figs are so delicate once they ripen, most producers dry them before shipping around the world.

Fig, gorgonzola and prosciutto salad with Honey-lemon dressing

Adapted from a recipe by Jamie Oliver in The Best American Recipes 2003 – 2004.  Serves 4

4 handfuls mixed salad greens

6 ripe fresh figs, any type

8 thin slices prosciutto or Serrano ham

8 fresh basil leaves

4 ounces gorgonzola or other blue cheese of your choice

Place the salad greens in a large bowl. Cut the stems off the figs and slice them in half lengthwise and add to the salad greens. Roll prosciutto into small tube shapes, if desired, and add to the bowl. Add the basil leaves and crumble the blue cheese on top.  Drizzle generously with Honey-lemon dressing.

Honey-lemon dressing

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon honey

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a glass jar and shake until well combined.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Potato Salad with red peppers and mustard vinaigrette

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The quintessential summer meal in America must include a potato salad.   No barbeque or picnic would be complete without this comfort food!   There are as many versions of potato salad as there are varieties of the potato - would you believe over 5,000 with 3,000 originating in the Andes alone?  

Soothing to the tongue and neutral in flavor, potatoes are a versatile starchy tuber that lend themselves to many interpretations and flavors.   In Eastern Europe vinegar and oil are the preferred dressings over mayonnaise.   This version has a little of each.   Hot cooked new potatoes are first tossed in vinegar which allows their starch to absorb its acidity.   The acidity is balanced by a thin coating of creamy mayonnaise, grainy Dijon mustard, crisp chopped red peppers and a few pungent scallions. 

No peeling is necessary as this salad is made with new potatoes.  Favorite daughter has a fit when she sees me peeling any variety of potato…and with good reason:  much of the fiber and nutrients are housed in the potato peel which acts as a jacket to keep the nutrients inside the potato during the cooking process.

Unfortunately potatoes have received a bad rap since the emergence of low carbohydrate diets.   I have recently discovered that they have enormous nutritional value and are considered by many to be one of mother nature’s whole foods.   Yes, they are high in carbohydrates (21% of the recommended daily allowance - RDA), but of that percentage 26% is beneficial fiber. 

Vitamins galore!  Potatoes contain a variety of important vitamins and high amounts in several.   Vitamin C has 48%of the RDA!  Vitamin B6 46%!  Niacin and Folate 21% each, Thiamin 13%, and many more.   Now let’s talk minerals:  Potassium 46%, Manganese 33%, Magnesium and Phosphorus 21% each, and Iron and copper 18% each.   It contains no fat and because it’s a vegetable it has no cholesterol either.   One portion size is 1/3 lb or one medium potato.  Enjoy your potatoes so that your body can reap the benefits!

 Potato Salad with red pepper and mustard vinaigrette, adapted from Gourmet Magazine, June 2002

Makes 8 - 10 servings

4 lb fingerling or new potatoes, skin left on

½ cup diced red bell pepper

2 scallions (green onions), finely sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup walnut vinegar or white-wine vinegar, divided
2/3 cup finely chopped shallots
¼ cup coarse-grained Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cover potatoes with salted cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, until just tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain in a colander and cool slightly.

Whisk together sugar and 6 tablespoons vinegar in a large bowl until sugar is dissolved.

When potatoes are just cool enough to handle, peel and cut diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices if using fingerlings or cut in half if using new potatoes. Add potatoes to vinegar mixture and toss gently to combine. Add diced red pepper and scallions.

Whisk together shallot, mustard, vegetable oil, mayonnaise and remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar in a small bowl. Add dressing to potatoes, then season with salt and pepper and stir gently with a rubber spatula.

Serve immediately at room temperature or chill if serving later. 

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fernet Branca marinated fig ice cream

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With squinting eyes and a hacking cough I spat out my first gulp of Fernet-Branca.    It’s a common reaction with Fernet virgins – so why didn’t the liquor salesman or the pastry chef warn me?   My startled nostrils and taste buds were screaming Robitussin and Listerine.  The dark brown concoction was highly medicinal with a strong dose of Pine-Sol - and nasty to put it kindly!   After shelling out a pretty penny for the bottle, I realized that I should have done my homework and goggled it before I planned to use it with my small but precious harvest of figs!   Just look at my blog header and you’ll understand my love of figs

I considered trashing the bottle but local pastry chef Plinio Sandalio recently tweeted that “fernet branca makes miracles”.   I’m not sure what planet he comes from (ok, I know he’s from Bolivia) but I believe he was thinking “miracles” with desserts.  Upon further research I discovered that Fernet is a miracle potion for those with hangovers!   It’s considered the national drink of Argentina and is wildly popular in San Francisco.  I tried it with iced coke, a common mix which I found a little more palatable, but I was still thinking that I was not going to let this Fernet fool around with my beloved figs!

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So who am I to question a professional chef?   As you can see, I sacrificed a few figs to find out that this overzealous digestif does indeed have special powers…when used in small amounts.   I found a marinade in Cooking Light magazine from San Francisco chef Luis Villavelazquez and marinated them for several days…just because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them just yet!   Eventually I decided upon fig ice cream and made a rich custard base from a recipe by ice cream wiz David Lebovitz.   Rich in egg yolks and cream,  the classic custard base was the perfect complement to the brazen marinade. 

The result was brilliant!   We were swooning with delight as we scooped spoonfuls into our mouths.  It was a beautiful marriage of velvety sweet figs, rich custard, and a gentle hint of herbs and spices.   A miracle!

FYI:   Fernet began as a medicinal potion compounded by Bernardino Branca, a chemist in Milan.  It was taken to ease stomach ailments, hangovers and cramps.   The list of ingredients is incredibly long – over 40 with some still remaining a secret.  Based on grapes, it also contains a sizeable portion of saffron, myrrh, mint, cardamom, aloe, mushrooms, fermented beets, coca leaf, gentian, rhubarb, wormwood, zedoary, cinchona, bay leaves, absinthe, orange peel, Echinacea, quinine, ginseng, St. John's wort, sage, galangal, peppermint oil – and the list goes on!  Today it is made by fifth generation Fratelli Branca.  It is aged in oak barrels for 12 months and contains over 40% alcohol.  The alcohol content in the marinade prevents the ice cream from hardening rock solid.  Even after a few days it remained the perfect scooping texture.

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Fernet Branca marinated fig ice cream

Fig marinade adapted from Cooking Light, August 2010

¼ cup water

¼ cup honey

1 tablespoon Fernet Branca (a little goes a long way!)

1 teaspoon lemon juice

pinch of salt

6 fresh figs, stems removed and then quartered

Combine water, honey, Fernet Branca, lemon juice and salt in small saucepan.  Bring to a boil.  Remove from heat.  Place figs in a glass container.  Pour marinade over figs and cover.  Refrigerate for up to 3 days - the longer the better!  Keep chilled until ready to add to the Custard base.


Custard base adapted from David Lebovitz’s Vanilla Ice Cream recipe in The Perfect Scoop

1 cup (250ml) whole milk

A pinch of salt

3/4 cup (150g) sugar

2 cups (500ml) heavy cream

5 large egg yolks

Combine the milk, salt, sugar and heavy cream in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Scoop out ¼ cup milk and set aside.

Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl to combine. While whisking, add ¼ cup milk drop by drop to warm the eggs and prevent them from curdling. Pour the egg mixture into the milk in the saucepan and whisk continuously. Return saucepan to the heat and bring to a boil. Cook for 1 minute until it thickens slightly and then set aside to cool completely. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight until thoroughly chilled.

Freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions for 10 minutes. When ice cream starts to thicken, slowly add the marinade but hold back the figs.   Continue to freeze in the ice cream maker (about 10 more minutes) and then add the figs.  Freeze until well blended and set.  Transfer to a container and freeze.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010


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“What’s that buzzing sound?”,  we asked each other within the first few minutes of the first football (soccer) match in World Cup action last month.  Not to be outdone by any other nation in WC history, the spirit of native South Africa rang through vuvuzelas – the long plastic instrument evocative of kudu horns used by tribal leaders to announce meetings.  The unmistakable droning sound led me to believe that a plague was imminent and the stadium was about to be attacked by a swarm of bees!   

South Africa FIFACongratulations to the country of my childhood for setting the standard for other African nations.   The South African team of Bafana Bafana (“the boys” in Zulu) captivated the world by showing that they can compete on the world stage.  Troubling issues in the shadows of the state-of-the-art stadiums temporarily took a back seat as the world watched the biggest event in sporting history unfold for an entire month.   Who can forget Landon Donovan’s winning goal against Algeria, the drama behind Ghana’s painful loss to Uruguay in penalty kicks, and Puyol’s header that took Spain to the finals?

Sadly off-the-scale ticket prices made it impossible for many locals to attend.  Horrendous refereeing – particularly during USA vs. Slovenia - and the unpredictable Jabulani ball revealed the pros and cons of technology.  An extraordinary octopus named Paul predicted the outcome of all of Germany’s games and in the end favored team Spain walked off with the gold-plated trophy.

It was an interesting month for me because I had a connection to several participating countries:  Serbia because it is my birthplace;  USA because I am now a proud citizen; and South Africa because it provided my immigrant parents the freedom to succeed and therefore offered us kids a wonderful childhood.  I spent 16 of my formative years in South Africa, oblivious of the racial tension that would erupt after our emigration.  

My beautiful mother, Emilija with me (in the back) and my brother and sister, Božidar and Vesna on Durban beach

Durban beach

Because we rarely ‘ate out’ back then, we experienced new foods during family trips.  During our holidays in Durban, we stayed at the Killarney Hotel where there was a curry dish on the menu every day.  We fell in love with Indian food and were mesmerized by the brilliant spices at the Victoria Street Market.  We also enjoyed Bobotie, a definitive South African dish which is believed to have originated with the Cape Malay slaves.  Settlers, beginning with the Portuguese and followed by the Dutch, French, English and Indians, brought spices from their homelands and incorporated them into the local fare.  The Dutch East India Company managed trade between Europe and the Far East and brought many slaves to the Cape Province from Malaysia and Indonesia.  The addition of sweet components to meat dishes is common with the Malay.  In Bobotie (hear bobotie pronounciation) the egg custard sets the spicy, sweet meat, crunchy almonds and plump golden raisins.  It is typically finished with fresh sliced banana, grated coconut and eaten with chutney and yellow rice (plain basmati below). 

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Bobotie adapted from African Cooking by Laurens van der Post

Serves 6

1 slice wheat bread, broken into small pieces

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter

2 pounds coarsely ground lamb, beef or a combination of both

1½ cups finely chopped onions

2 tablespoons curry powder

1/2 - 1 teaspoon spicy masala (I used a home made masala brought to me from India by a friend)

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 eggs

1 medium-sized tart apple, peeled, cored and finely grated

½ cup golden raisins

¼ cup almonds, coarsely chopped

4 small fresh lemon, orange, or bay leaves

To finish:  grated coconut, freshly sliced banana, chutney and basmati rice

Preheat the oven to 300º F.  Combine the bread and milk in a small bowl and let the bread soak for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a heavy 10- to 12-inch saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat. When hot, add the ground meat and cook it, stirring constantly while breaking the meat up until the meat is completely cooked.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat into a deep bowl.

Discard all but about 2 tablespoons of fat from the saucepan and add the onions.  Stirring frequently, cook for about 5 minutes until the onions are soft and translucent but not brown.   Add the curry powder, masala, sugar, salt and pepper, and stir for 1 or 2 minutes. Then stir in the lemon juice and bring to a boil over high heat. Pour the entire mixture on the meat.

Using your hands, squeeze the bread until the milk runs dry.  Reserve the drained milk.  Add the bread, 1 of the eggs, the apple, raisins, and almonds to the meat mixture.  Mix with both hands until the ingredients are well combined.  Taste for seasoning and add more salt, curry or masala if desired.   Transfer the meat mixture loosely into a 3-quart oven-proof dish and smooth the top with a spatula. Tuck the lemon, orange or bay leaves beneath the surface of the meat.

With a wire whisk or rotary beater, beat the remaining 2 eggs with the reserved milk for about 1 minute or until they are frothy.  Slowly pour the mixture over the meat.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until the custard is set and the top is light golden brown.

Lemon leaves are tucked into the meat and the custard is poured over the mixture and baked  

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   Serve hot with yellow rice, fresh banana slices, grated coconut and chutney of your choice

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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Grilled corn (esquite) with black beans, lime dressing and queso Cotija

024 v1One of my favorite aromas is grilled sweet summer corn emanating from Hispanic food stands and taco trucks.   Smoky and hot with the presence of a little char, roasted corn on the cob is becoming a common street food here in Texas as it is in Mexico.  Known as elote, corn is usually roasted in its husk.  When stripped but left attached at the end, the husk (also known as the shuck) becomes the handle with which one eats the corn.   Slathered with mayonnaise, lime and chili powder, it is one toothsome treat!

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Elote that has been cut off the cob are called esquites, and that’s what I served my delightful bunco group at my Cinco de Mayo feast this year.  Served with traditional Mexican accompaniments of mayonnaise, lime juice, chili powder, cayenne pepper and Cotija cheese, I took my esquites one step further by adding black beans and scallions.   It was very well received!

Roasted corn (esquites) with black beans, lime dressing and queso Cotija

4 ears corn, husks on

½ – 1 can black beans (14-oz), rinsed and drained

2 scallions, chopped

Lime dressing (see below)

1/3 cup queso Cotija (Cotija cheese), crumbled

To roast the corn: Soak corn with husks intact in cold water for 30 minutes. Drain water and pat dry. Broil or grill corn, turning every few minutes, until the husks char and corn kernels are cooked but still firm, about 12 – 18 minutes depending on the intensity of the heat. Cool and remove husks. Cut kernels off the cob and place them in a bowl.

Add black beans, scallions and lime dressing. Toss to combine and top with crumbled Cotija cheese and sprig of cilantro.

Lime dressing:

1/3 cup mayonnaise (sour cream or yogurt would be fine as well)

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice

¼ teaspoon chili powder, or a little more to taste

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

¼ teaspoon cumin

¼ teaspoon salt

Combine sour cream or mayonnaise, lime juice, chili powder, cayenne, cumin and salt in a small bowl.  Set aside. 046 v1