Monday, April 30, 2012

In Abundance

Even though I complained about all the rain in April, I must say it's made things vibrant and apparently grow like weeds. All of a sudden it seems like there is a glorious abundance of flowers and vegetables everywhere. Like these roses on the Mission lawn. Or the rows and rows of neatly clipped asparagus at the farmers market.

I love roses (don't most girls?). But I think I love this salad even more. Perhaps that would explain why I've made it four times since this

It's quick to pull together and creates a stunning presentation which people will "ohhh" and "ahhh" over—even though the littlest kitchen helper could assemble. I also like it because it can be served room temperature, so it's a great choice for a simple weeknight dinner, an alfresco picnic, or for entertaining. And it's a wonderful combination of flavors and textures: Bright citrus, tangy goat cheese, and the crunch of hazelnuts, all layered on top of asparagus. 

You could easily substitute green beans or sugar snap peas for the asparagus, although I'm probably partial to asparagus. There is something about the tips of the stalks that have an almost anthropomorphic feel to them that I love. 

And probably any relative in the orange family could pinch hit. I used tangerines but i just bought a bagful of blood oranges at the market on Saturday that would also be delicious and delightfully eye-pleasing. 

Citrus fruits make me happy. Their colors are so vivid. And then there's the wonderful aroma released when you first tear into the peel. And I can't help but smile when you bite into it and the juice drips down your chin or hands. I'm momentarily transported back to playing little league soccer and stuffing orange slices in our mouths at half-time. I'm pretty sure we were more excited about the oranges than listening to the coaches' play they were trying to get us to run. Oranges also remind me of one of my best childhood friends, Dana. She had this amazing talent. She could peel an orange in a single peel! I would sit at the lunch table mesmerized by this fascinating feat. To this day, I still try to replicate her talent—to no avail. Well, I can do it with a tangerine (see below) but that's not all that hard. 

The dressing is what really pulls this whole dish together. I'm not sure where I picked this up, but I always put a dollop of dijon mustard in any vinaigrette I make. It's a great emulsifier, helping to bind the oil and vinegar, but it also gives a wonderful "oomph" to the flavor that seems to compliment whatever I'm serving. And while most people swear by the 3-1 ratio of oil to vinegar, I almost always go closer to 2-1. I don't want to feel my mouth coated in oil. I prefer more sharpness from the acid, so adjust according to your personal preference. And honestly once you realize how simple and fast it is to make your own vinaigrette, you'll abandon any store bought bottles. I promise what you make will far out-shine what you can buy. 

I also just want to assure you that even if you don't like licorice (which I don't), you'll like fennel when it's sliced very thinly and served with oranges. There must be some wonderful magic that happens then those two things are put together. It's like mushrooms and thyme. Or beets and citrus. You're just going to have to trust me, even though I can't give you a scientific explanation.

I hope you too have lots of abundance around you to enjoy

Asparagus, Orange and Fennel Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette
Adapted from Epicurious

2 lb asparagus, ends trimmed
3 medium oranges
1 fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and halved
3 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp whole-grain mustard
1/2 tsp salt, plus extra for sprinkling
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper, plus extra for sprinkling
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp finely grated orange zest
3 oz crumbled goat cheese
1/4 cup hazelnuts, roasted with skins removed

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread asparagus on rimmed cooking sheet and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-25 minutes (depending on the thickness of the stalks), shaking the sheet half way through, until tender but still crisp. 
2. In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper. Gradually whisk in oil, then zest. 
3. Heat a small skillet over medium-low heat and add hazelnuts. Shake pan occasionally and cook for about 10 minutes. Be careful they don't burn. Usually, you can tell when they're ready by the rich aroma they give off. When they're done, remove from the pan and take a wet paper towel and rub the skins off. Place them in a small ziplock bag and take a mallet or the back end of a kitchen knife and crush. 
4. Cut and peel oranges, cutting between the membranes to release segments. If you're using tangerines, like I did, then just slice across. Squeeze any excess juice into the salad dressing and whisk to combine. 
5. Take a mandoline and shave the fennel paper-thin. If you don't have a mandoline, just slice the fennel as thinly as possible. 
6. To assemble, arrange the asparagus in a row on a serving platter. Add a layer of thinly sliced fennel down the middle, followed by the orange segments. Drizzle the dressing overtop. Sprinkle the goat cheese and hazelnuts on top and serve!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

By Request

If Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But if Life gives you strawberries, make strawberry margaritas! 

This recipe is for my friend, Paul, by request. He asked for it after he read about it here. It's a gloriously warm and sunny day today. Kind of perfect for a strawberry margarita.

I picked up a basket of these cute little strawberries at the farmer's market this morning. I was going to eat them but then decided that I'd rather drink them. 

Happy weekend, y'all!

Strawberry Margarita
Recipe by my neighbor, Chris

4 strawberries, hulled
2 Tbsp agave syrup (not triple sec!)
1/4 cup tequila blanco (definitely use agave!)
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
Lime wedge for garnish

Muddle strawberries with agave syrup in a cocktail shaker until berries are slightly crushed and juices are released. Add tequila and lime juice to the cocktail shaker; fill with ice and shake well. Strain into prepared glass and garnish with lime slice. Sip and smile. 
Note: This recipe makes one glass. And while a made-to-order margarita is superior, let's be honest. You should just make a big batch of these and then sit outside and sip these for a few hours. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Living up to its Reputation

Well, this month is living up to its reputation. We just had a week of solid showers and downright cold temps. Whoever wrote the song "It Never Rains in Southern California" clearly has never lived here. And please tell me why people insist on saying, "Well, we needed it" every time it does rain? I for one don't. If I did, I'd be living in Seattle not Santa Barbara.

Thankfully, I had two things last week that buoyed me:
1) The hilarious Texts from Hillary
2) Memories from the 4th Annual Peeps Regatta (aka Easter Brunch)

Santa Barbara was in its prime on Easter Sunday. We got a break from April's rain antics and were blessed with sunshine and temps in the 80s. I was especially grateful since I was hosting a brunch for 30 people, 11 of which were under the age of 5. Plus, who wants to race peeps in the rain?!

We had quite a spread to fuel us for the race. We started with this dip I made last year, which someone called "a heart attack on a cracker." It's so light and healthy. Not. And the Yummy Mummy made the most tasty banana-chocolate chip walnut bread, but not surprisingly it was gobbled up before any pictures could be snapped. But that was balanced out with this fabulous and festive fruit basket compliments of the Fallons . . . .

. . . some beautiful roasted carrots from the Stones . . . .

. . . citrus asparagus . . .

. . . an Easter ham, of course . . .

. . . a spinach and sun-dried tomato stratta . . .

. . . and for the finale, Meredith's insane peep cake!

Yes, the local Cake Boss (see her other masterpieces here) whipped this up for brunch! What could be more fitting for a peep regatta? One of the kids asked if the bowl of peeps were her babies. I was like, "Uh, yes as a matter of fact!"

And I feel like you need tulips for Easter. I thought they were the prettiest pink.

Until I saw this vision in pink:

Anyway, on to the main event . . . . Once we were sated, it was time for everyone to claim a peep and prep for the regatta. This entails taking a sharpie and personalizing your peep.

Or you could just eat it like one two-year old did. That's certainly one option.

We got off to a clean start . . .

but Mason was on a mission and came prepared . . .

. . . and ultimately, he eeked out the win over Meredith and Connor. Samantha, who previously held the title of premiere peep racer, was a little bitter about it (nice face, Sam).

And if you stay long enough at my house, you'll get fed again. Around 9 pm the stragglers were delighted by my nice neighbor bringing over a flat of strawberries . . .

and a bottle of tequila for fresh strawberry margaritas, along with 3 boxes of pizza. The pizzas were a good call since we started drinking at 11 am.....

But seriously, I have the best, most talented and gracious friends ever. And I can think of few better things than sitting in the sunshine, drinking, eating and enjoying life with them.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Spring Chicken

Three surefire signs of Spring?
1. Daffodils
2. Longer days
3. Budding trees

There's just that vibe of rebirth in the air. And I wanted to make something that felt like a Spring celebration — both for my eyes and my mouth. And this is it. I'm calling it my Spring Chicken.

Actually, it's really Grace Parisi's Spring Chicken, although she officially calls hers Vinegar-Braised Chicken with Leeks and Peas.

It's a simple yet elegant — and definitely Spring-like— dish. The pop of green made me smile. And smelling it cooking made me smile. And eating it really made me smile.

Grace Parisi is a senior recipe developer at Food & Wine, my favorite cooking magazine. She authors the What to Cook Next column, and over the years I feel like she's become my trusted cooking advisor. She's like an old friend you can always count on. Without fail her recipes delight. They're straight-forward to cook and you know it's going to turn out delicious. They often become my standbys. Frankly, she's dependable. And that counts for a lot in my (cooking) book.

So when she "told" me that this dish was elegant enough to entertain with and easy enough to make on a weeknight, I believed her without hesitation—even though I've never braised something in vinegar, and white balsamic vinegar at that, and it was a Tuesday. And as expected, once again, she delivered. So pull out that boneless, skinless chicken breast from your freezer, along with the bag of peas you've probably had in there for months (if you're like me), invite some friends over, whip this up, and lick your lips as you savor each delicious bite and rave review.

Happy Spring and Happy (Early) Easter!

Vinegar-Braised Chicken with Leeks and Peas
from Food & Wine

8 boneless, skinless chicken breasts*
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 large leeks, halved lengthwise and cut into 1-in pieces
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
10 oz package of frozen baby peas
2 Tbsp chopped tarragon
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
1/2 cup crème fraîche or sour cream (not fat-free)

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Season generously the chicken with salt and pepper.

2. In a large skillet, heat half the oil and butter over medium-high heat and brown the chicken breasts on each side (about 5 minutes total). Note, you may have to do this in two batches if you don't have a skillet large enough to accommodate all the breasts at once.

3. In a second skillet (or I guess you could clean the one you used for the chicken if you didn't want to multi-task), heat the remaining oil and butter and cook the leeks over medium-high heat until just beginning to soften, about 2-4 minutes. Add the broth and vinegar and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the mixture into a medium roasting pan.

4. Set the chicken breasts onto the leeks and roast for about 25 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. It may take closer to 30 minutes if the breasts are pretty large. If you're nervous about the chicken drying out, you may want to cover the pan with aluminum foil for the last 5-10 minutes. Transfer chicken to a rimmed serving platter.

5. Place the roasting pan over a burner and boil over high heat until the liquid is reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the peas, herbs and crème fraîche and simmer until the sauce is hot and slightly thickened, about 2 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve.

*Note: This recipe originally called for 8 whole chicken legs (cut halfway through the joint). If you use those, you'll simply cook the chicken skin side up on high heat for 5 minutes. Turn the cook the chicken for another minute. Follow the rest of the recipe except you'll cook in a 425 degree oven for 25 minutes.