Thursday, January 24, 2013

Butter Fried Butter Pound Cake with Creme Fraiche

Ok, ok.  Maybe I should add that this cholesterol bomb also comes with fresh fruit?

The other day, I found myself pondering how it is that our home did not have any dessert!  I had gotten Will the new Thomas Keller baking book Bouchon Bakery (more on this cookbook in another post!), and he was baking something new from it each week.  But, alas, his latest baked goods were demi-baguettes which, while delicious as main course accompaniment, were not exactly dessert material.

Then I remembered that we had gotten a French Vanilla pound cake from the Fresh Market (which, if you don’t have one, is sort of like a less well-known Whole Foods, and not much less expensive…) that day to have around as snack or for a quick breakfast.  Recalling a tasty “Grilled Polenta Pound Cake” dessert at an Italian restaurant some years ago, I quickly whipped up a dessert for us.

First, get your fruit ready so that you can serve the pound cake hot from the pan.  Either get mixed berries or some other combination of fruits cut up in small dice.  Since we had a mango from our vegetable co-op, I cut that up and added blueberries.  Note: The mango was less ripe and fragrant than I like, but the dessert is sweet enough on the whole.

Whip up some sweetened crème fraiche by stirring into ½ cup of crème fraiche about a teaspoon of agave nectar or a teaspoon lemon curd or ½ teaspoon honey.  Whatever sweetener you have around that you like to flavor something like whipped cream with.  And, yes, of course you can use whipped cream! 

You’re all set now for the pound cake part.  Take fairly thick slices of pound cake (about 3/4 inch thick) and lay it down gently in a nonstick pan over medium heat that has a teaspoon of melted butter sizzling gently.  If you have something fairly substantial like polenta pound cake or an olive oil cake or even a day-old pound cake refrigerated until slightly firm, it might make the whole maneuver a little bit less delicate.  I noticed that our fresh pound cake was a bit fragile and I needed to be extra careful with the “grilling” (ie. Pan-frying) portion.

After about 3 minutes, temporarily remove the slices from the pan, melt another teaspoon of butter and gently return the pound cake slices to the pan—cooked side up.   (I have to confess that I like to just move the slices off to the side while melting the butter, but less lazy people might find removing them momentarily to be the safer method.)  Cook on the other side until that side is also nicely golden brown.

Remove to a (pretty) dessert plate, scatter fruits above and off to the side, either drizzle or spoon the crème fraiche over the fruit, and serve!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Spaghetti with FRESH Tomato Basil Sauce!

I admit it.  When I was younger, our conception of an Italian pasta dish was one which swam in a thick red sauce—preferably Prego or Ragu.  It turned out that both names actually do come from Italian: “prego” being a fairly generic word that could mean anything from “yes, what do you need?” to “just go right ahead,” and “ragù” being a long-simmered meat sauce.  Yet, at least in our own household, we didn’t use the jarred sauces called Prego or Ragu in a very Italian fashion. 

As an adult, I discovered that Italians prefer to sauce their pasta very lightly.  Of course, as an adult, I also learned that Italians do not cook their pasta to the point where it resembles porridge…  Perhaps lightly sauced al dente pasta is an acquired taste, but I have indeed acquired that taste and prefer my pasta dishes that way.  It isn’t just me though.  Now, most reputable cookbooks and culinary magazines stress the importance of cooking—as well as dieting—in a more authentic Mediterranean way.

Though he is a British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver has developed many recipes which feature Italian flavors, ingredients, or cooking styles.  In Jamie’s Food Revolution, he has a recipe for “Classic Tomato Spaghetti” which I found useful.  However, despite the saucier image pictured, I think the recipe might be a bit dry for even the more adult and sophisticated palates.  I even wonder whether there was a typo in the recipe since it calls from a full pound of dried spaghetti and only one 14-ounce can of tomatoes.  In any case, I did end up modifying the recipe (less pasta, more sauce).  Even with the modification, the pasta is very much in the vein of authentic pasta dishes in the sense that—as you can see from the picture above—it’s a very slightly sauced, and very light, pasta.

Fresh Tomato Basil Pasta
(Serves 4)

3 cloves of garlic
1 fresh red chile
1 bunch fresh basil
¾ pound dried spaghetti
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 cups of drained canned diced tomatoes (or 2 medium tomatoes peeled, seeded, chopped)
½ cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper

Step 1:
Put a large pot of water to come to a boil (and look at Step 2).  When the water is at boiling, salt the water and the add the spaghetti to cook until done but still having a slight “bite” to the pasta (that is, al dente).  Depending on what pasta you use, this could take about 10-12 minutes.  Go with taste and texture, not time.

Step 2:
While the water is heating up, slice the garlic, finely mince the chile, and lay aside basil leaves.  Chop basil stalks.  (By the way, I find Jamie Oliver tends to use red chiles in many of his recipes and that he likes to add chopped cilantro, parsley, and basil stalks during the cooking process.  These little additions or tricks are quite flavorful, I find.)

Step 3:
In a heavy bottomed pan over medium high heat, pour in about ¼ cup of the olive oil and then the garlic, chile, and the basil stalks.  Immediately reduce the heat to medium to let the garlic cook a bit and then add the tomatoes along with most of the basil leaves—withholding a few leaves for final garnish.  Once everything gets incorporated, raise the heat to medium high.  After only a few minutes of cooking (which makes this pasta dish quite fresh), the sauce is ready for salt and pepper for seasoning.

Step 4:
Drain your cooked pasta (which should be done by now), put the pasta in the pan with the tomato sauce, and then stir to incorporate.  Taste and season again.  Serve in bowls with the grated cheese and the remaining fresh basil leaves.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Moules Provençales at Home? Mais Oui!

The idea of cooking mussels at home used to intimidate me—those living things opening and closing their shells and making me wonder whether they are “good” or if they will make me very ill, if I should ignore the fact that a mussel is not quite open but not fully closed, or if there wasn’t really a crack but a hairline fracture before cooking, or if I couldn’t get that “beard” quite ripped off from the shell, or if... 

You get the idea.  I was nervous about cooking mussels at home.  I assumed that restaurant chefs are so much more magically attuned to whether or not they had a bad mussel in the group, so I happily paid a lot of money for mussels eating out instead.  Besides, some of that expensive price tag went towards fries (or “frites”), so I felt justified.  Then I saw—ok, yes, at Costco—that mussels were $1.99 a pound.  Hmmmm.  That 5-pound bag that cost $10 contained 3-4 times more mussels than I ever got at a restaurant for $20!  I had to re-evaluate my anxiety about cooking mussels.

I consulted Barefoot in Paris: Easy French Food You Can Make at Home by Ina Garten.  Indeed, her recipe seemed pretty straightforward.  She labels her mussels “Moules Marinières” instead of “Provençale.”  My understanding is that mussels in white wine are generally “Marinières” and that the addition of tomato—along with the requisite herbs and garlic—brings it to the region of “Provençales,” but I never got that cleared up.  In any case, the recipe looked super-easy.  Here’s a link to the Food Network recipe for Ina Garten’s mussels, essentially halved from her cookbook:  Note: Ina Garten uses more salt (and, for that matter, more sugar) in her recipes than I need, so I usually start with half of the amount she calls for.

First, I followed Ina Garten’s recommendation for cleaning the mussels by soaking them in water and flour for 30 minutes—to “disgorge” sand—but I’m not sure most mussels need them these days.  Those in the bag I got were pretty clean to begin with, so there wasn’t a lot of disgorging during the soaking process.  Nor were there many mussels with beards.  Because most were quite clean, I barely needed to do any scrubbing.  If you want to cut down the cleaning process, I would just suggest getting mussels that announce they are ready for cooking.

The next steps call for heating butter and olive oil, adding shallots (and/or onions if you don’t have enough shallots), then garlic.  You add saffron threads soaked in water—which is a nice touch and adds more flavor than you’d expect—along with chopped tomatoes, herbs (parsley and thyme), white wine, salt (remember to reduce from the Barefoot recipe) and pepper.  Once the liquid comes to a boil, all you need to do is add the mussels and let them steam open under a closed pot.  It helps if you have a glass lid like I have so that you can see mussels opening up.  After 8 to 10 minutes, you have restaurant-worthy mussels. 

Perhaps it’s just us, but I thought these mussels cooked at home were actually more tender, more juicy and flavorful, than those we paid a lot of money for at a restaurant.  The only possible downside was that we had way more mussels than the two of us could consume.  So we saved the rest—and their juices—and made mussel bisque later in the week.  Win-win.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Newport New Year Tradition

What gets an average score of 4.5 on Yelp (out of a staggering 1203 reviews and counting), 4.5 score on Tripadvisor (#2 of 87 restaurants in town), a 27 point Zagat rating for food, but is reasonably-priced enough that my entire family of 14 gathers there before every New Year?  For the last four years, we’ve celebrated being together at the end of a year at a place called Newport Tan Chang Seafood Restaurant at 518 W. Las Tunas Dr. in San Gabriel, California (

Newport is really pretty special to us, but it turns out it’s pretty special to a LOT of other people as well.  So it is wise to show up not much past 4pm on a weekend—especially around New Years…  This year we arrived at 4:30 and waited in an area that was rapidly filling up with other lobster-eater-wannabes.  After about 20 minutes, we got our regular space: a large room near the entrance where we worked our usual magical permutations of space and furnishing to enable 14 chairs to fit around a table better suited for 10.  (Thank goodness 3 of the chairs are for kids 7 years and younger who don't mind being squeezed in so tightly!)

Then pretty immediately the ordering began.  My sister takes care of most of the ordering—she and her husband are our unofficial hosts at dinner (that is, they first introduced us to the restaurant, and they graciously continue to pay the bill)—but she encourages Will to order some dishes as well.  My family has noticed that Will is a bit more adventurous about trying new dishes and that most of those dishes have been huge hits.  Case in point, the Shrimp Salad Vietnamese Style (pictured above).  Since we eat fairly frequently at Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago, we are quite familiar with “Vietnamese style.”  Perhaps Newport’s dish isn’t quite “authentic”—that is, it doesn’t quite pass the Argyle Street test—but it’s excellent in its own way.  Besides, it’s nice to have something that we can pass off as a “salad” amidst so much fried goodness.

But no one’s complaining about the fried food.  At least, I’m certainly not.  If Will’s food motto is “Everything is better with bacon,” mine might well be “Why not have your food deep fried?”  We had two different salt-and-pepper dishes, both fried, and both mouth-watering.  The “Crispy Fried Squid with Salt and Pepper” (pictured above) was nicely battered and deep fried, resembling miniature beer-battered onion rings, complemented by sautéed green onions. 

The “Fried Pork Chop with Salt and Pepper” dish (pictured above) was a marvel of very browned, fried, crispy pieces judiciously seasoned with finely ground salt and white pepper and accompanied by a small condiment dish of lime wedges and extra salt and pepper.  It was a pleasure to behold my 11-year old nephew--lover of bacon and all things salty--chomping through a plate piled high only of fried pork with salt and pepper.  My brother cajoled his 7-year old twin daughters into eating the dish by telling them that it’s just like chicken nuggets.  My 5 year-old nephew ate the pieces as quickly as I was able to tear up into small bits.  Success all around!

Sure, there were non-deep fried items too.  For the kids we ordered Kung Pao Chicken (pictured above) and noodles with seafood (ok, that was also “Fried” but it wasn’t “deep-fried”).  Beef Loc Lac (French Style) was full of meltingly soft pieces of tenderloin beef in a light glaze of brown peppery sauce.  We even had Fish with Black Bean Sauce (pictured below) which periodically deluded us into thinking we were eating relatively healthy.

But, of course, how can the meal be complete without Newport’s House Special Lobster (pictured at top of post)?  At 5pm when we ordered, they had already run out of the large lobster, and we settled for two medium lobsters (and wondered whether there would be any food left for the people already waiting outside our window, if they ever got seated).  It’s not quite clear what all goes into the dish—other than the green onions that are visible—or how exactly it’s prepared—boiled and then sautéed? pan-fried?—since it’s just mysteriously called the “House Special Lobster.” 

Let it suffice to say that it is indeed quite special, and something that we want to ring in the new year with.  Peaceful and prosperous New Year to you!