Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sufferin' Succotash

I think we all have a vegetable that scarred us as a child. It was the one our parents forced us to eat even when we pleaded to them that it would make us puke. They typically didn't buy it so we were left with no other option but to ingest as little as possible. For me it was brussels sprouts but I admit that I was a pretty picky eater so I had more than one vegetable on my "will not eat" list. For Russ it was definitely lima beans, which surprisingly I actually enjoyed eating. 

When I think of lima beans, I think of succotash, the stewed combination of tomatoes, lima beans and corn. And then, of course, I think of poor Sylvester the Cat in his exasperated state exclaiming, "Thufferin' thuccotash." There is nothing really suffering about succotash — unless you're a lima bean hater. It's a Southern staple, I think, because those vegetables are so easily canned. My grandmother was a canning machine! I remember being a child and walking into her pantry. There were rows and rows of canned vegetables from the floor to the ceiling. At the time I was wondering if there was some disaster on the way she was preparing for. I've never had an interest in canning, probably because we're lucky enough to have access to an extensive array of fresh produce almost year-round. I'll definitely take fresh over canned any day!  

With fresh corn showing up at the Farmers Market, I got a hankering for succotash. But I knew I needed to make some adjustments. I recalled having a delicious succotash served with a braised duck breast once. The duck was delicious but the succotash is what I still remember all these years later. I found a recipe that conjured up the dish and thought I'd give it a try. 

Firstly, fava beans replaced the limas. Secondly, I bailed on the tomatoes, which sometimes give the dish too much of an acidic twist for me.  And I personally think stewed tomatoes can taint the beauty of the dish because everything turns kind of a weird shade of pink when coated in bits of tomato flesh.  

I added mushrooms which don't make it in a traditional Southern rendition but gives it some meatiness. I do need to acknowledge that this particular version does not qualify as a 30-minute meal, so make it on a day when you're trying to procrastinate. It uses roasted carrots and fava beans, which in my opinion are soooo worth the time and effort. The carrots add a sweetness to the dish that goes well with the milky corn and is a nice contrast to the earthy mushrooms. Favas are just incredible in this but shelled edamame would be a delicious and healthy substitution. To enhance the flavors, chervil is used, which is a staple in French cooking. It's actually a member of the carrot family and tastes somewhere between parsley and anise. The flavor is subtle though, often playing in the background, but really adds something special to dishes.  Often used to flavor eggs (i.e. fines herbes), fish, and sauces (i.e. Bernaise), it's also a tasty addition to herbed butter, mashed potatoes and cream cheese spreads. It is best used fresh as high heat can kill its flavor. 

I honestly think this makes a nice vegetarian meal in of itself but this time I topped it with seared scallops for some added protein. I think it would work well with fish (i.e. Pacific halibut, U.S. farmed catfish or trout, or white seabass), and be great with grilled meat or duck (which I'm too intimidated to cook at home so typically only eat it in a restaurant). 

To me, this dish is really emblematic of summertime. When the nights are long, the air is warm and the only cooking that seems doable is done outside on the grill. It's great served at room temperature or warm. And is sure to charm even lima bean haters. 

Sweet Corn Succotash
By Michel Nischan

5 Tbsp olive oil
1 lb sea scallops
4 ears of corn, kernels cut from the cob
1/4 cup sliced shallots
1 cup mushrooms (chanterelle or crimini)
1 cup blanched and peeled fava beans
1 cup diced, roasted carrots (approximately 4 carrots)
Springs of fresh thyme
1 cup grilled sweet corn kernels
2 cups sliced fresh chervil
Salt and pepper

Preheat over to 400 degrees. If carrots are thick, cut them in half lengthwise. Otherwise, just cut into smaller chunks (several inches long). Toss them in a bowl with 1 Tbsp olive oil, salt, pepper and a few fresh thyme sprigs. Transfer to a sheet pan in 1 layer and roast in the over for 20 minutes, until brown and tender. Remove and chop when cooled enough to handle. 
Using a sharp knife cut the corn kernels off 3 ears. If you have a juicer, put them through a juicer. I don't so I just crushed them up as well as I could with a mortar and pestle. Put whatever juice you could get in a small pot and bring to a simmer. Cook until it starts to thicken. Set aside and keep warm.
Heat corn kernels cut from remaining cob in a large saute pan and dry roast until kernels start to brown. Add fava beans and heat for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve in a small bowl. Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in same large saute pan over medium high heat. Add shallots and saute until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and saute for 4 minutes. Add the remaining vegetables and saute until heated through, about 3 minutes. Transfer vegetables into a medium-sized bowl and toss with some of the warmed sweet corn sauce and chopped chervil (start with a cup and add as desired). Season with salt and pepper. 
Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of scallops. In a medium-sized skillet, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil on high heat and sear the scallops for approximately 2 minutes on each side. 
To serve, please succotash in the center of the plate and top with a few seared scallops. Drizzle some of the remaining corn sauce over the scallops. Yields: 4 to 6 servings

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dynamic Duo

What would the world be without dynamic duos? Arguably, it seems like we have Adam and Eve to thank for even being here. There'd be a gaping hole in cartoons without Tom and Jerry. And we wouldn't know what to do eight days a week without Lennon and McCartney. These symbiotic relationships often result in the whole becoming truly greater than the sum of its parts. Food is no different. (Hello, Reese's Peanut Butter Cup!) There are just things that are better together. But don't be confused by common duos, which are not necessarily dynamic. (Hello, peas and carrots!) 

I've always been drawn to food. I realize now even as a youngster I was a bit of a scientist when it came to figuring out what possible duos worked. For instance, once when I was five, I got hungry and decided to make myself a snack. I thought a bowl of Cap'n Crunch would do the trick. I had enough experience to know that milk and cereal went well together, but the milk carton was too big for me to pour without spilling its entire contents. So as an alternative, I thought I'd substitute a can of Tab, which I could get my little hand around and maneuver. Tab is questionable by itself but, as you can imagine, downright awful when combined with even the best sugary cereal. 

I'm happy to report as the years have passed my knowledge has expanded and the real "misses" happen less than less. Following recipes helps. You see what ingredients are often combined and then you start gaining confidence with your own experiments. And even eating at restaurants can be a wonderful classroom to learn about dynamic food duos. Some of my tried and true favorites are thyme and mushrooms, citrus and beets, gorgonzola and beef, and peaches and pork. I'm now officially adding cheese and honey. 

Honey has long been considered the quintessential cheese paring, but it was one I hadn't much experience with. So I jumped at the chance to attend a cheese and honey tasting last week. 

The sweetness of the honey is the perfect foil to a salty or nutty cheese. The combination really elevates the taste profile, creating a delightful culinary duo that will surely make it on your short list. 

Although most of us associate honey with a bear-shaped plastic bottle, there are actually many varieties. The honey commonly sold in grocery stores is a blend of honeys and is typically pasteurized to prevent crystallization. (Apparently we Americans don't like our honey chunky.) It has a very mild flavor and is a nice accompaniment to goat cheese. If you have access to a gourmet market, you might see specialty and artisanal honeys named after flowers, like black sage and lavender. These are not the flavors of the honey but rather the flowers the bee gathered nectar from. The difference in taste from the "grocery store variety" is quite dramatic. The subtle nuances  can be wonderful when paired with the right cheese. For instance, try lavender flower honey with a soft, creamy cheese (i.e. brie). There are also flavored honeys infused with ingredients like truffles or fruit. These often have a pronounced flavor which can be strong on their own but wonderfully complex when paired with an appropriate cheese. Try an aged pecorino drizzled with black truffle-infused honey. One of the most expensive honeys is Tupelo. It's the one Van Morrison waxes poetic about. The tupelo gum trees are only found along a few river banks in the Florida panhandle, and bees are placed on elevated platforms along the rivers' edge to capture their honey during the trees' annual blossom cycle, which sometimes lasts a mere five days. Tupelo honey has a light amber color with a tinge of green to it and will not crystalize. Its bright, sweet flavor can support a strong, spicy blue cheese. Add a nice glass of dessert wine and you'll be over the moon. 

Here are some tips for combinations that are quick, tasty and definitely dynamic. These require minimal prep and baking so they're great for easy entertaining, a picnic, or even a casual supper (if, like me, you can make an entire meal out of cheese, bread and wine).
  • Smear some softened goat cheese on baguette slices. Top with a toasted walnut half and fresh rosemary and drizzle with honey. This is so easy and fast to prepare. And quite addictive. 
  • For breakfast or a snack, enjoy fresh, fluffy ricotta drizzled with honey and figs or apricots. 
  • For a unique dipping dish, cover half of a lipped dish with olive oil and the other with honey. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and serve with toasted baguette slices. Swirl your bread in it and enjoy. How's that for a no-cook dish for entertaining?
  • Top a wheel of brie with a honeycomb and serve with crackers. I haven't tried this but I saw a visually stunning photograph and plan on serving this at my next party. I can't see how it wouldn't be as delicious as it is beautiful. 
  • Cut an "X" in the top of some ripe fresh figs. Stuff with gorgonzola and drizzle with honey. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. 
A cheese and honey tasting would also make for a great party. Just pick five cheeses and a few different honeys and let people taste different combinations. Traditionally you start with the mildest cheese and progress to the strongest. Serve with some dried fruit, nuts and bread slices. It's like wine: everyone has a different palate so it's a fun to see which combinations people enjoy. It's not meant to be an evaluation or any kind of test, but rather a chance to savor food and discover new things to love. 

And if you're passionate about good food and like to explore new combinations, check out this website, which suggests pairings based upon food profiles. It's like a culinary periodic table. Surprisingly, I didn't see Tab and Cap'n Crunch on the list. 

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's Unofficial!

It'd been a grueling week of business travel. I was near brain-dead on my flight home Friday evening with just enough energy left to catch up on some important current events (i.e. is "Octo-Mel" Gibson's girlfriend pregnant c/o US Weekly) and debates (i.e. what is the best way to "dress" your burger c/o Bon Appetit).  It was the latter topic that got me thinking about the long weekend ahead. Like many of us, I consider Memorial Day the unofficial start to summer. Sadly, it could not be considered barefoot weather in Santa Barbara this weekend so barbecued burgers were out, but I did my best to summon the summer spirit. 

Two things that always help are fresh tomatoes and "umbrella drinks." If I had to rank those, I'd definitely switch the order. Is it wrong to set out for the Farmers Market with the sole intention of getting ingredients to make an adult beverage? If you've ever had the Pimlico at the Hungry Cat then the answer would be a resounding "No." So, I picked up some freshly squeezed blood orange juice, mint and limes. 

But once there, I got giddy at the sight of boxes brimming with all shapes and sizes of Summer's signature vegetable: tomatoes! 

I picked up a few heirlooms and some herbs, which I thought would be delicious for a simple pasta dish. To take the whole freshness quotient up a notch, I picked up some homemade capellini a few stalls over. It's a luxury in my book to have fresh pasta, and frankly I don't have the patience to do it myself. As my dad once wisely told me, "some things are worth paying for," and I think fresh pasta qualifies (as does interior painting). 

Back at home, we got busy with the drink concocting. Additional necessary equipment: two well chilled old fashioned glasses, ice (I like a mixture of cubes and crushed), and good bourbon.

First we muddled the mint and a small amount of simple syrup. 

Then filled about half the glass with bourbon, adding equal parts orange juice and lime juice to fill up the glass. 

Garnish with a slice of lime and some fresh mint, and enjoy the fruits of your labor!  

If you like Mojitos, I would encourage you to try this. But the mint is key. You really can't go overboard. And the citrus takes this far away from a Mint Julep. 

Once cocktail hour had passed, it was time to get on to the main event. All that muddling had built up my appetite so this was a perfect dinner because it can be on the table in about 20 minutes with quick-cooking pasta and mostly raw ingredients. Simply cook the pasta in salted water until al dente.

Then make the sauce by adding butter, white wine and crumbled goat cheese to some sauteed shallots, along with a few handfuls of fresh herbs.
And gently toss in some diced tomatoes before plating.  

It's simple and delicious, bursting with the flavors of summer. Paired with a simple arugula salad with a lemon vinaigrette and shaved parmesan, you've got the perfect meal for an alfresco dinner in the gardens — or bundled up inside cursing the fact that Santa Barbara's "June Gloom" may be here a bit early this year. 

Herb Butter and Goat Cheese Linguine with Fresh Tomatoe
Adapted from Rachel Ray

1 lb capellini pasta
5 oz goat cheese, crumbled
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh tarragon
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh thyme
2 cups chopped heirloom tomatoes 
Salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook al dente. Drain, reserving a ladleful of the pasta cooking water. 
While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter over a large skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the white wine and cook until slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. Add the crumbled goat cheese and stir until well combined. Add herbs and mix well. 
Add the drained pasta to the cheese sauce and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Add tomatoes and toss gently and warmed 1 minute. Again season with salt and pepper.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Real Thing

Hi, my name is Holley and I'm a Coke addict. That's Coca-Cola, or "Co-Cola" as we say in the South. I go straight for the hard stuff too, avoiding any of the wimpy Diet varieties. In my defense, I think I'm genetically predisposed. As a young child, I remember hearing tales of my dad drinking a Coke and eating a Hershey bar for breakfast when he was a summer "work boy" at Camp McDowell. I had a pretty extreme habit going for many years, probably ingesting no less than 64 ounces on a daily basis. As a non-coffee drinker (one of the handful in the world, I feel), Coke was my substitute. Sure I got my caffeine fix, but I actually liked the flavor. 

I also have wonderful childhood memories of the world's most popular beverage. I remember moving to Panama when I was four years old. I was pretty down on it, thinking we were going to live in a primitive hut surrounded by lions. Hey, I was only four and a frequent viewer of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and my parent's National Geographics. But my tune changed when my parents told me I could get a pet monkey. I had it all planned out: I made us matching fishing rods (don't ask), selected the most transferrable doll clothes, and found a basket large enough to serve as his/her bed. We were going to be best friends and live happily ever after in our hut in the jungle. Well, they totally reneged on that promise when we arrived. I think their story was that the government just changed the rules and you could no longer have a pet monkey (but if you already had one, you could keep it). I was pretty bummed but at least we were living in a house with electricity and plumbing. In fact, I managed to find some solace in the small green glass bottles filled with caramel-colored, sugary, fizzy water that were delivered to our house on a weekly basis. That's right, we had a Coke Man! He became my new BFF, although he was not interested in my homemade fishing pole. It was awesome until my brother and I went to the dentist for the first time and he declared our teeth were rotting. Mom cracked down pretty hard on the quantity we could drink, but I was already hooked by then. 

My granddad was also a great lover of Coke. We had a ritual. He'd say, "Go grab yo'self a cold Co-cola and come out here and sit a while." We'd take our perch on the front porch and just talk and watch the world go by. We might even chase it with a chunk of sugar cane he grew. And when the garbage men or mailman would come by, he'd always offer them one.  They almost always accepted. I've often wondered if it was out of courtesy or because of the overbearing humidity. There's nothing like an ice cold Coke to quench your thirst on a hot day. 

I've tried repeatedly to curb my Coke habit in recent years. I'm better. I may go four or five weeks without one, only to weaken and grab one at the gas station while I'm filling up my car. But somewhere along the way, Coke changed on me. The glass bottle was abandoned for plastic and "they" changed the secret formula. I'm not talking about the failed New Coke launch. [I hope that guy was fired.] I mean they started using high fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar. Like I said, I'm an addict so a not-as-good-Coke was still better than no Coke. But recently I heard some fantastic news: Mexican Coke is still made with sugar!   

A burgeoning gray-market for Mexican Coke has emerged in recent years, which is a beverage bonanza for discriminating Coke addicts (like myself), Mexican immigrants, and green and gourmet consumers. Mexican markets and taquerias are popular vendors, and, lucky for me, the Santa Barbara area has plenty. Since I had to get out of my house for a few hours today while some work was being done on it, I thought it was a great excuse to do some investigative research. I started on Milpas Street but surprisingly came up empty-handed at least a dozen times. Most had Coke in a glass bottle but none were imported from Mexico. Feeling discouraged but not hopeless, I decided to move my research project south to Carpinteria. 

At about my fifth stop, I struck gold! I almost dropped the bottle when I saw the words "Hecho en Mexico" on the label. To confirm my discovery, I turned the bottle around to look at the ingredients and sure enough it listed "azucar!" 

I marched up to the counter and plunked down three bottles. Upon request, the cashier opened one for me. I sat down on the bench outside, admired the worn hand-me-down bottle and took my first sip. It was a rapturous experience. I found myself saying, "I remember that taste," and I was instantly transported to my granddad's front porch once again. It was all I could do to restrain myself from downing the two remaining bottles right then. 

Despite the fact that Coca-Cola Corporate in Atlanta claims there is no noticeable difference in taste between the Mexican and the U.S. version, let me tell you there is. It has a cleaner sweetness to it. Diet Coke drinkers often make a face when they see me take a swig of my Coke, saying they can't handle the sugary aftertaste. I think it's because they've only had Corn Syrup Coke, which I admit does have a cloying sweetness and leaves a film in your mouth. Mexican Coke is also fizzier and colder because of the glass bottle.  

So I think the time has come for me to bid thee farewell, Corn Syrup Coke, and your second-rate sweetness. From now on, I'm holding out for the REAL Real Thing. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Santa Barbara Burning

I was on a business trip Tuesday when I received a call that my house was in a mandatory evacuation zone as a result of the Jesusita Fire. I hadn't prepared for this, although I said I would when the Tea Fire hit Santa Barbara just six months ago. I have amazing neighbors who grabbed my cat, but I felt incredibly helpless when I returned to Santa Barbara that night in my high heels and business suit — not exactly disaster attire. Thankfully there was a window of time Thursday morning when I was allowed to go back to the house and grab some of my belongings and ditch the heels.

The next few days were spent glued to the TV, internet and radio, desperate for information. Almost 30 percent of the town was evacuated so if you weren't evacuated you had someone who was staying with you. The calls, text messages and emails were constant, with people checking on your safety, offering to help in some way and sending prayers. The sense of community that rose up from the flames was deeply touching.  

Thursday night was the real nail-biter, as the fires shot down San Roque Canyon and were threatening to jump Foothill Road/192 and take out my neighborhood. I am eternally grateful to the firefighters who took a stand at Steven's Park and held the line, risking their lives to protect strangers' homes. It's an understatement to say I was relieved to hear I still had a home the next morning. The fire got close, within a few hundred yards, but again I still had a house, which is sadly more than some people could say.  

Many of us were able to return to our homes on Saturday when the weather cooperated and the firefighters could finally get the upper hand. The landscape was decidedly different, though, as I walked through the embers in my backyard, looking toward the foothills. It was unnerving. All you could see were charred hillsides and some spots where houses stood just days ago. Eighty homes were destroyed and 8700 acres ravaged. But it could have been worse. 

Although exhausted after several sleepless nights, I was overcome with the desire to be with people drinking, eating and laughing. For me, those are the happy things you do in a home, my "security blanket," I guess. And I desperately needed that again to get past the harrowing experience we'd just gone through as a community. So we opened our house up to friends and neighbors to come together to celebrate our homecomings and breathe a collective sigh of relief. A wonderfully eclectic group gathered. And you could shut your eyes and actually feel the sense of camaraderie overflowing in the room. Going through a disaster has a strange way of bringing people together. It was actually one of my favorite evenings I've had in this house. 

One of the most surprising elements that night was when the Los Angeles NBC affiliate news van pulled up. Russ went outside to ask if they'd like something to eat or drink. They declined but asked if they could come in and shoot some interviews. They were putting together a segment on people who'd been evacuated and were returning home. 

I answered a few emails and text messages this morning from people asking, "Hey, did I just see you interviewed on the Today Show?" and then began the tedious yet emotional process of unpacking all my precious belongings I so hastily gathered just a few days earlier. I think most of us at one time or another have asked ourselves, "What would we grab if the house was on fire?" But when the time comes, it's funny what we actually choose to bring with us. For instance I brought my bills and a lint brush. God forbid I should fail to pay my credit card on time or be caught with wayward fibers on my black linen pants at the evacuee shelter. Bizarre choices, I agree, but I did manage to pull myself together enough to grab some truly valuable and irreplaceable items. 

One of them was my first recipe book. My mom gave it to me for Christmas when I was a junior in high school after I started to take an interest in cooking. It is just one of thousands of gestures my parents made to encourage me to embrace the things that made me happy in life. I enjoyed thumbing through it and seeing how narrow my eating and subsequent cooking habits where back then. Let's just say I was big on chicken. 

But what makes this book so special is that my mom took the time to include many of her recipes I love. Like her pound cake. It's so moist and fluffy even though it's dense like a traditional pound cake. I thought it would be fitting to bake it in her honor on Mother's Day. And I can honestly say I've never enjoyed cooking in my kitchen as much as I did today — so grateful to still have a home. 

Everybody's Favorite Pound Cake
By Janelle Proctor

1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter
3 cups sugar
6 eggs
3 heaping cups of plain flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 cup sour cream
1/2 tsp vanilla

Have all ingredients at room temperature and preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream butter and sugar in large mixing bowl. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour, baking soda, sour cream and vanilla, mixing until thoroughly combined. 
Pour into a greased bundt cake pan or 2 loaf pans and bake for approximately 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack and then turn out of pan. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How Sweet It Is

I just returned from my 15-year college reunion. It'd been almost that many years since I'd set foot on campus or seen most of my classmates. 

It was great to reconnect after so much time, and we couldn't help but reminisce about the four-years we spent together. Of course, it didn't take us long to revert to some of our college habits: too much alcohol, closing down fraternity parties, and eating greasy foods in the wee hours of the morning. 

It's funny what people remember though. Like the time J. passed out and peed on V's sofa and just flipped the cushion over, thinking no one would notice. Or how if we heard "Wicked Games" by Chris Isaak playing in C's room, he was in the process of trying to get lucky, assuming no girl could resist the power of this romantic song. Several people recalled my traditional college breakfast, which consisted of a Super Big Gulp and chocolate mini donuts. I'm not proud of it but it was my standard morning fare. This new website dramatically illustrates the amount of sugar we consume using sugar cubes to represent how the sugars in some of our favorite foods literally stack up, gram for gram. 

My morning breakfast "sugar stack" looks like an advanced state in a Jenga game. 

I would never, under normal circumstances, sit down and throw back 24 sugar cubes. [Twenty-four cookies maybe or possibly even 24 beers, if I were still in college.] And the funny thing is I claim not to be a sweet tooth, often forgoing dessert for an extra piece of bread. But now I realize it's probably because I've already consumed enough sugar to put someone into a diabetic coma.