Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ratatouille Follow Up

The ratatouille has been delicious and we've been eating it all week. The Spouse came up with a brilliant idea for the last of it last night: he took about a cup and half of leftover ratatouille and threw it in the food processor with similar amount of fresh ricotta, heated it, and served it over pasta. Quite tasty!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Birthday Cake

The Dark Lord turned 14 today. He celebrated the day with a good friend watching the latest Harry Potter film. No parents needed this time around, but who can keep a mother from making a chocolate cake?

This is surely the simplest frosted layer cake I've ever made. First the cake batter and then the frosting is made in the food processor which is quick and tidy. I love it when I don't have bowls all over the counter. But it isn't just about the convenience-this is actually a delicious cake: rich and flavorful, but not heavy. I'm not big on frosting, but this really is quite yummy and you can, of course, use whatever fancy chocolate you can find. The recipe was written for 8" pans and I have only 9" cake pans so a little math was done to accommodate my slightly larger pans.

The next time someone needs a chocolate cake (and surely someone will soon) please give this a try. The recipe is here.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ratatouille and a Fruit Tart

Did you see the movie? I loved it--the darling French rat with gourmet dreams was absolutely charming. Technically, the movie was brilliant, and the story was great. But....what was with the signature dish? Ratatouille all tarted up to look sleek and elegant? I'm sorry, but I don't think so. On the other hand, I don't like it all slopped together, either, so it comes out like a lumpy pizza sauce. I've had some lousy ratatouille in my time and really what I like best is my own which is based on a recipe by the ever fabulous Deborah Madison who always seems to know when to simplify and when it's really worth the fuss. Despite being not terribly photogenic, this dish is worth the fuss.

We hit the farmers market today and came home with all the necessary ingredients: eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes, all of which were gorgeous. At home I began the slicing, salting, and sauteeing. It's a long process, but sauteeing each vegetable separately in olive oil and then baking them together gently is what makes the dish so delicious, especially topped with reduced pan juices for extra flavor. We'll eat it served with polenta, fresh bread, and locally made goat cheese.

All the fresh fruit at the market was calling out to me and I was inspired to make a simple fruit tart for dessert. It's an old family recipe: a simple, buttery dough topped with summer fruit to which I've added one small (but delicious) flourish. I know my great grandmother would certainly have approved of the thin layer of barely sweetened cream cheese I added between the fruit and the dough.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


I don't have a whole lot to say right now other than sometimes things just suck and you have to face them anyway. But it's best not do so while hungry. Earlier in the day I made salad rolls for the family dinner, but when I came home from work fairly trembling with hunger I knew I needed considerably more substance than was enfolded in the diaphanous wrappers.

A quick tour through the cupboards revealed nothing and then I remembered the quinoa tucked away for safekeeping in the freezer right next to a small packet of pine nuts. I discovered quinoa last year during a period of doctor-ordered dietary restrictions. Quinoa was the only new thing I tried that I continue to eat. I love its golden color and crunchy texture. It's outstanding from a nutritional point of view and it cooks up more quickly that just about any other whole grain.

With feta from the fridge and a dash out to the garden for parsley I came up with a simple dish that was sustaining and comforting. Just what I needed tonight. No doubt everyone needs a dish like this at some point. The recipe is here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Party Food, Part Two

As far as I'm concerned, nothing says "party" like a platter of dolmas (stuffed grape leaves). And since we were indeed having a party, I knew what I had to make.

I first started making these years ago when we had actual grape vines of our own. Home-grown leaves are definitely best, in my opinion, as you can pick the shape you want and brining is unnecessary. But since I have yet to get any grapes planted it was off to my favorite local Balkan/Slavic/Middle Eastern deli where I was able to get pre-mixed henna in a tube along with my grape leaves. All this and "helpful and knowledgeable stuff"!

When I've had to buy leaves, they've always been wadded up in jars so when I saw the definitely not eco-friendly vacuum-packed plastic bags I thought I'd come across something so brilliant that I'd forgo recyclable glass. Since the leaves were packed flat, I reasoned, surely they'd be intact, less ripped and mangled than the jarred variety. Of course I was dead wrong. Most of the leaves were too small to use, and others were ripped to shreds. Nearly all were so deeply notched that I actually had to double roll many of the dolmas just to hold the filling. And they were so salty, even despite repeated careful rinsing. As you can imagine, I was in a fine mood after spending an hour an half fighting with the cursed things. But none of this mattered the next day when I arranged them on a sunny yellow platter and waited for guests to arrive. They quickly disappeared into the mouths of hungry revelers who kept asking where I'd bought them. I just smiled ever so humbly when I confessed that I'd made them myself.

Many folks use meat in the filling, but mine have a simple lemon-herb-rice filling. Call up a friend or two to make light work of it an roll up a batch of your own tasty dolmas. The recipe is here.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Party Food, part one

I'm not quite sure how it's happened again so soon, but once again I find myself a year older. I blame my bad health luck last year on the fact that I didn't throw myself a party and, not wanting to repeat the curse, I made sure to plan something big this year. I have lots of friends and loved ones joining me tonight for a dance party. We're moving furniture, rolling up the rug, and cranking up the stereo for a few hours of craziness and I am really looking forward to it!

I spent more time thinking about the perfect playlist (and perfect it is, with a little bit of everything thrown in to make a perfectly spicy mix) than I did thinking about the food. When I finally focused I realized there were two things I had to have to call it a party: tomatillo salsa and dolmas (stuffed grape leaves). Yes, I know, completely different continents but really, with the range of music? They make a perfect couple for this party.

The salsa is a snap, really. The hardest part is peeling the tomatillos which isn't a huge job. Take a pound and a half of tomatillos, peel off the husks, and wash them in hot water to remove the waxy coating. Place tomatillos in a large roasting pan along with a couple of nice, fat jalapeño chiles . Roast in the oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or so, until they begin to soften. Toss into the pan a handful of garlic cloves which you've separated, but not peeled. Roast for another 20 minutes or so, until there everything is started to collapse and darken.

Remove from the oven and let cool. Pick over the tomatillos and chiles to remove any stems, and dump into the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic by squeezing it out of the skins. Toss in 4 or 5 scallions (green parts included), as much fresh cilantro as you like, and a good pinch of salt. Whiz away until you have a pleasant consistency and give it a taste. You may want to add a bit of sugar or more salt. Admire its lovely color and bright flavor. Serve with chips or quesadillas or eggs or, honestly, just about anything. Refrigerate the highly unlikely leftovers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Salad Rolls

It's always a pleasure when I discover that foods I previously thought beyond me are actually not that challenging. Yes, some of the mystery is lost, but it's but it's a fair price to pay to have all the salad rolls I can eat.

It's been dreadfully hot here in Portland so when a friend offered me both an air conditioned space in which to hang out for the day and lunch I knew I'd gotten lucky. She made a yummy peanut noodle salad (a warm weather standby around here and I'll get a recipe up one of these days) and a bunch of Vietnamese style salad rolls. I've always found the diaphanous wrappers quite intimidating but after watching her work I realize it's something I can handle. After all, I can make my own cheese, so surely I can do anything!

This morning we walked over to the Hong Phat market for supplies. I'd thought the wrappers were rice paper but what I ended up getting was made of tapioca flour, as were the noodles. I spent some time slicing and chopping to set up my assembly line:

I was delighted to find that as long as I worked quickly, the rolls came together easily and stayed stuck. It takes a bit of practice to become familiar with the wrappers, but they come thousands to a package so you can afford to toss a few as you improve.

I used mixed greens from my garden. The speckled lettuce was lovely, but I really liked the bite of tiny mustard greens. One child nixed the peanuts and another whined about the avocado but it won't be long before the darlings can simply make their own custom salad rolls.

You'll want a sauce or two for dipping. I always love sweet chili sauce, and one of the kids decided to give some commercial honey-garlic sauce a try which wasn't bad. I think something involving fish sauce and lime juice would be traditional and a quick, spicy peanut sauce would be tasty as well.

The best part? No heat, apart from quickly boiling the noodles and the hot water for the wrappers which was really nothing. I'm looking forward to experimenting with these rolls as summer progresses and the markets offer new possibilities.

You'll find my novice recipe here.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Dinner on the Patio

I know a lot of folks who are deliriously happy about the onset of summer. Not me. I hate being hot. I'll go out in the cold without a coat and happily shiver until I get where I'm going but the heat makes me miserable, especially at night when it makes sleep difficult. I'm not going to handle the climate crisis graciously, you can bet on that.

There are, of course, a few good things about summer. The fruit is gorgeous and varied, my garden goes wild, and we can enjoy our covered patio. Years ago someone decided to slap some extra roof over the northwest side of our house, making a very dark little corner which, frankly, is quite unpleasant most of the year. But in high summer, it's a wonderful place, a cool refuge from the sun's rays complete with the soothing burbling of my home-made washtub fountain. We move the houseplants out for the summer, and we've been covering the walls with an odd collection of mirrors to bring a bit of light into the dim space and for a couple of months, it's not a bad place to be, especially on a warm evening at dinnertime.

The kids had been asking for onion pie for quite a while, so I finally indulged them even though it made the kitchen even hotter. With the fan set up, I was good to go, chopping and sauteeing onions in a mixture of olive oil and butter until they turned a rich, deep brown.

I put the caramelized onions into a deep pie dish, scattered grated cheddar and fresh thyme over the them, and then made a quick biscuit dough and plopped it over everything. Half an hour in the oven, and the whole thing was tipped out onto a plate, ready for serving.
After last week's cheesemaking I was all ready to give it another try. I found some beautiful heirloom tomatoes which I sliced up and layered with the slices of fresh mozzarella. I drizzled olive oil and balsamic vinegar over everything, along with a pinch of salt, black pepper, and some chopped fresh basil.

The final dish was sauteed garlicky zucchini, fresh from the garden of friends. I remember thinking they were crazy to put their zucchini in so early but they called it right this year. My plants are still spindly while they've been eating fresh zucchini for quite some time.

It was declared by all to be a fine meal, which is something in this household of picky children. Should you feel inclined to try the onion pie yourself, you'll find the recipe here.