Sunday, June 28, 2009

It's Jamón Time

arrived in Madrid this afternoon— just in time to sit down at a terraza and sample a little pincho: pan y tomate con Jamón iberico. It's hard to improve upon. It's simple but one of those dishes you just can't replicate in the States. We just don't get Jamón like this back home, and I plan to take full advantage of it while I'm here. 

Monday, June 15, 2009

Chasing the Dream

I've long had a fantasy of being an expat. I first envisioned myself dressed in white linen from head to toe in some sweltering outpost, sipping something cold and refreshing (i.e. Pimms) on my veranda, and feeling a tad colonial but very fabulous in the presence of a dashing suitor reading poetry to me. [Note: I might have conjured up this image after watching Out of Africa for the first time.] If I could paint the picture now, I think it would be slightly different. For one, linen wrinkles way too much and makes you look completely crumpled unless you're willing to never sit down. Secondly, I'm not really all that fond of Pimms. And thirdly, I'm addicted to my CrackBerry so need access to a strong network at all times. So perhaps drinking a glass of wine in an outdoor cafe in a bustling European city while wearing great leather shoes is more my thing now. 

With each passing year, though, reality has set in and the dream seems more and more like, well, a dream. But with a little creativity, I'm happy to report I've found a happy compromise, which does not involve me becoming a mail-order bride. No, it's basically a chance to rent my dream for a bit. I leave at the end of the month to live in to Spain for five weeks! Yes, I will still have to maintain my consulting obligations and actually work, but I'll be living (albeit temporarily) in a bustling European city and sipping una copita de vino tinto at an outdoor cafe when it's time to call it a day at the office. 

Spain, Spain, Spain. It's one of my favorite countries in the world. It oozes with culture, history, architecture and art — proud but unpretentious. Dining out and wine are two of the strongest parts of Spanish culture and tradition, which is pretty much heaven to me. Any place with a three hour lunch and a mandatory nap time is definitely my kind of place. There is just an attitude of "slow down and enjoy life" that permeates. 

To get in the spirit, I invited a few girlfriends over to feast on some tapas. I love the concept of tapas: small, delicious mouthfuls of savory treats designed to accompany sherry or a glass of wine. To me, they go hand-in-hand with hospitality, friendship and good conversation, which are the cornerstones of the Spanish culture — and why I'm probably so fond of Spain to begin with. It's a lot like the South actually. There is an endless array of tapas to be made and eaten, but one not to be missed (in Spain or in the States) is Gambas al Ajillo (garlic shrimp). Truly addictive. Garlicky, tender shrimp in a smokey, spicy broth that begs to be sopped up with a loaf of crusty bread. 

Manchego cheese is also very prominent in Spain (and can be found now in most grocery stores) and, in my book, is deserving of being the star ingredient. So, I adapted a salad recipe I found in keeping with the spirit of tapas. 

It's basically just shaved carrots and manchego in a ridiculously tasty dressing of sherry vinegar, orange juice, honey and cilantro. 

If you're one of those people who thinks cilantro tastes like soap, I beg you to try this. I'm not really a betting person but I feel pretty confident it's good enough to convert you.  

And I hope these dishes will inspire you to cook up some tapas with your friends and talk about how you can rent your own dreams, even if just for a little while. Because as Dorothy Gilman once said, "People need dreams. There's as much nourishment in 'em as food." 

Buen Provecho.

Carrot Manchego Salad
Adapted from Sunset Magazine

4 carrots, peeled and sliced into thin coins (with a mandoline or the slicing attachment of a food processor)
1 small clove of garlic
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 Tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice
2 Tbsp sherry vinegar
1/2 tsp mild honey
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp minced fresh cilantro, plus several sprigs for garnish
5 Tbsp fruity extra-virgin olive oil
3 oz manchego cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
10 small, whole Bibb lettuce leaves, washed and dried, for "cups" and some extra leaves to chop as a salad base

Chop garlic, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and mash to a paste on a cutting board with the flat side of a knife. In a small frying pan, toast cumin seeds over medium heat until fragrant (about 2 minutes), and grind finely with a mortar and pestle (or put cooled seeds in a ziploc bag and crush with a meat mallet). In a small bowl, whisk together garlic, cumin, orange juice, sherry vinegar, honey, pepper, 1/4 tsp salt, and minced cilantro; whisk in olive oil. 
In a large bowl, toss carrots with half the vinaigrette, the shaved cheese and the extra chopped lettuce. Spoon the salad mixture into the small lettuce cups, drizzle with remaining vinaigrette and garnish with cilantro springs. 

Gambas al Ajillo
From El Farol Cookbook

1/2 white onion, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 cloves garlic, minced 
4 green onions, chopped
3 Tbsp Madeira wine
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne
1/2 cup chicken stock
Salt to taste
Chopped fresh parsley to garnish

Saute onion in olive oil on high heat until soft; add shrimp and garlic. Saute for approximately two minutes. Remove shrimp from pan and set aside. Add all the other ingredients except parsley and cook down for 2 minutes. Add shrimp and toss with sauce and then remove from heat. Serve on a platter, topped with chopped fresh parsley and sliced bread. 

Monday, June 8, 2009

Green is Good

I loved Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham. I would read it over and over again to my dad when he came home to eat lunch each day, so proud of my fledging reading skills but perhaps more intrigued by the concept of eating something green. Once my mom even made my brother and me green eggs and ham (I think it was St. Patrick's Day). We thought she was the coolest, but I was a bit wary of actually eating them. How could something green taste good? 

I've grown to love green things but occasionally do see something green and find myself involuntarily recoiling. For instance, have you ever seen Green Goddess salad dressing in a grocery store? If you live in California, the answer is probably yes. Apparently it was the most popular salad dressing (a tribute to George Arliss, the star of the popular 1923 play The Green Goddess) on the West Coast before it was dethroned by Ranch dressing. It has a weird lime sherbet hue to it that seem inappropriate for a salad. I can honestly say not once upon seeing it in a store have I ever considered buying it. Not even in the slightest. It's in the same category for me as canned clams. I did have a rather traumatic experience at a young age with salad dressing. It involved a bottle of orange French dressing being poured on my head, so that may also have contributed to further bias toward this green dressing. 

Thankfully, I am a faithful reader of Molly Wizenburg's Cooking Life in Bon Appetit. When she described green goddess dressing as "what a salad likes to wear when it goes to California," I knew I had to put aside my childish fears and try it.

Classically, green goddess dressing is a blend of mayo, anchovies, garlic, lemon juice and fresh herbs. It sounds like a derivative of Caesar but the end flavor is quite different. I found dozens of different recipes online, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find a version tastier than Molly's incarnation, adapted from Chez Panisse. It gets its creaminess from an avocado not mayo, and has a wonderful balance of fresh herbs.  The end color was definitely green, but a gorgeous, inviting one. Like "pale aloe" or some other alluring color as defined by J. Crew.

The result was both soothing and provocative. [I recognize I'm talking about salad dressing here, but if you make this, you'll know what I mean.] You feel momentarily swept away to a spa while at the same time are fighting back the urge to stick your finger in the bowl for a taste. 

Since this was all about the goodness of green, I figured the salad accoutrements should also be green. It was delicious! Crunchy steamed asparagus, crisp cucumbers, creamy avocados, tender baby lettuce and some fragrant basil. What's not to like? 

I know food is only as good as the ingredients (the old garbage in garbage out rule), but I must give props for the stunning herb combination in this dressing. Tarragon is the subtle hero, but mixed with the cilantro and basil, all you taste is a delightful harmony. If you don't like cilantro, you won't taste it, I promise. And don't let the anchovy scare you off. It's mild and just adds some pleasant saltiness to it. 

All told, the end product has a coolness perfect for warmer days but with some added spunk. Life is too short to eat bland salad dressing. And it's certainly too short to not try a green one!

Green Goddess Dressing
By Molly Wizenburg

1/2 ripe medium avocado
3 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 oil-packed anchovy, very finely chopped
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp fresh lime juice
1/4 tsp sugar
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup whipping cream
3 Tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 Tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 small shallot, finely chopped (about 1 Tbsp)

Blend first seven ingredients in a processor until coarse puree forms. With machine running, gradually add oil through feed tube; blend well. Transfer mixture to bowl; whisk is cream. Add parsley, tarragon, cilantro, basil, and shallot; whisk to combine. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and chill at least 3 hours (dressing will separate if not chilled). Let stand at room temperature 20 minutes and rewhisk before serving. Can be made one day ahead. Keep chilled. Yields: 2 cups. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cat's Kitchen

I met another Southern belle in Santa Barbara yesterday. This is noteworthy because (1) there aren't too many of us, and (2) it happened to be Iron Chef Cat Cora!!!

Yes, I totally lucked out and got to sponge off a promotional shoot for Santa Barbara involving local celebrities. 

I arrived at her modest but tasteful home near the beach. The first thing I smelled was salmon, which had clearly been cooked for lunch. I liked that. A chef's home should smell like someone's been cooking. I was a little nervous walking in. I didn't know what to really expect. I've always been a huge fan of Cat (Can I call her that? It seems so informal, like I'm hanging out with her — but wait, I was!), and a part of me didn't want her to be one of those self-involved celebrities who's lost perspective of where they fit into the world. But as soon as I heard her call out, "Hey, come on in. We're over here. And please excuse the salmon smell," I could feel her Southern warmth oozing out. 

Like most homes, everyone was in the kitchen. But instead of pots and pans, here were lights and cosmetics. The crew was busy setting up the shoot and taking care of Cat's hair and "putting on her face." That's what Southerners call applying make-up. I didn't want to disrupt anything, since I was essentially crashing the shoot, so I chatted with Jennifer, Cat's wife, who was nursing baby Thatcher (born in April). For a mother of three children under the age of five, she was remarkably relaxed and pleasant. They'd just returned from a family visit to Jackson, MS, where Cat grew up. It was Thatcher's first flight and Jennifer said, "He did great! The only issue was the smoke coming out of the cockpit, but he was the only one who didn't seem to mind it." Apparently, there were some mechanical issues onboard, which were swiftly fixed, but the traveling may have to subside a bit since Cat is delivering her first child next month. 

Cat was wearing a colorful empire-waist blouse that camouflaged her bump but matched her palpable charisma. You just want to be around her. I guess that's why she's so successful. She commands attention but her 1000-watt smile and easy-going nature put you at ease. There are no pretenses or attitude, although there certainly could be. Her accomplishments are numerous and enviable: She is the first female to receive the title of Iron Chef America; she's the Executive Chef for Bon Appetit; she is the Founder and President for Chefs for Humanity; and she juggles successfully a marriage and family. I was curious how this larger than life Southern belle found her way to Santa Barbara. As the shooting wrapped, I got my chance to find out. 

Cat's culinary talents took her out of the South and in fact around the world. But when it came time to settle down, she was looking for the right place to call home. "At the time we were living in the Napa Valley, but work required me to spend a lot of time in Los Angeles. We wanted to find a place close to the water and more centrally located." For the occasional respite, they'd often come to Santa Barbara. She was smitten in no time. Yes, it's a uniquely beautiful place, but it was the hospitality and sense of community she was drawn to. "It has a small time feel with a big quality of life. We love the hip vibe, its openness, all the different festivals, great public schools, and it's central to everything. When we started to seriously consider moving here, people were so genuine and happy to offer us a helping hand. That was really different. It just fit like a comfortable pair of shoes. This is where we're putting down our roots."

Cat is clearly passionate about food. Her eyes brightened when she started talking about all the fruits and vegetables making their way to the Farmers Market these days. "Summer is my favorite season. Corn, tomatoes, watermelon and stone fruit! I just grill it all." Interestingly, Cat received a degree in Exercise Physiology and Biology before heading off to the Culinary Institute of America so she really liked the concept of this blog when I introduced it to her. "I like to bring together all those things: family, food, and health. People should look forward to a meal and food can really rejuvenate you. Living here makes it really easy to bring together the whole self." Aside from eating local and healthy food, Cat leads an active lifestyle. "I love to get up and go swimming in the ocean. There's nothing like it." Except maybe waterskiing. "I do wish there was someplace to go water skiing! We had to sell our boat when we moved down here. I recall spending entire summers on a boat when I was young. And the rivers and lakes, where I'm from, have nice, sandy shores like beaches. It was the best."

While you may be able to take the girl out of the South, you can't take the South out of the girl. I asked her what she missed the most. "The food!" It was an expected response, but I think you have to be Southern to really understand it. Yes, Santa Barbara is a foodie paradise, but as Cat said, "You can't find a good biscuit! And there are no pickled pigs feet here." She admitted that wasn't her dish of choice but it's a part of the culinary landscape she holds dear. We talked about how our mother's and grandmother's food tastes better than ours (a shocking revelation considering she's a world famous chef!). "It's the pans," she explained. They're often relegated to a specific food. For instance, there is the gumbo pot and the biscuit pan. I want the biscuit pan when my grandmother passes on. I'm convinced it's the secret behind their melt-in-your-mouth texture. How can one possibly replicate 70 years of seasoning?!

I cracked up when Cat shared a funny story about giving her boys boiled peanuts for the first time during their most recent visit to Jackson. Some of you may be wondering what on earth a boiled peanut is. Well, first off, it's pronounced "bowled," and they're green peanuts, meaning they're young and haven't dried, boiled in salty water over an open fire. Usually from May through November, you'll see roadside stands or convenient marts ("totems") selling this addictive snack. "They're best when accompanied by either a coke or a cold beer." She was excited for their first tasting and was looking for a way to explain what they were eating. People love sushi out here and kids often grow up eating edamame. Cat's family is no different. "I told the boys it was Southern edamame!" 

By the end of the visit, both our accents had blossomed and I felt like I'd made a new friend. Someone who really understands why a buttermilk biscuit is lust worthy, what the difference is between dinner and supper, how fun it is to drink a Bud with some good old boys, and why we wave to passing cars from the front porch — even if we don't know the people in them. It's true, she's famous. She's Cat Cora! But to me, she emerged as one of the members of the sisterhood of Southern belles. It was great to chat with a bona fide celebrity, but the best part of being in Cat Cora's kitchen? 

It felt like being home again.