Wednesday, June 24, 2009

East Meets West

Today was our 9th wedding anniversary, and I woke to the aroma of potato latkes frying on the stove. Brandon made them just the way I like them, brown and crispy, with my favorite dipping sauce - soy sauce and minced garlic.

Given the latke's Jewish/German roots, soy sauce is a somewhat unusual dressing for this potato pancake, which is typically served with sour cream or applesauce. But I swear, I didn't make up the unique combo myself!

Growing up in Hawaii, my best friend was a hapa girl named Heide, whose mother was from Germany and father was Taiwanese. I never forgot those post-sleepover mornings, when we'd tear apart the pancakes with our fingers and dip them into little bowls filled with the murky, savory and slightly spicy mix of soy sauce and garlic.

Latkes and soy sauce exemplies what is best about Hawaii - it's colorful, mixed-plate culture.

By the time I thought to include Brandon's latkes in my blog, I'd already polished off the entire platter. Well, all but this lone pancake.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day with a Twist

Sunday was Brandon's first Father's Day, so I decided to make him something really special - Mac & Cheese. It's one of his favorite things to eat, and one of my least favorite. When we were first married, he came home from the grocery store one day with 10 boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. "It was on sale," he announced, proudly. "Buy five, get five free."

"Yeah, but 10 boxes? How are we going to eat all that? It's powdered cheese."

"What are you talking about? I grew up on this stuff."

Now, I'm fourth-generation Asian American, and I grew up eating rice balls wrapped in seaweed, Chinese jook and fried rice with spicy, pickled mustard greens. But as I said, my family has lived in this country for four generations, so my mom also made a lot of spaghetti, meat loaf and, my personal favorite, corned beef and cabbage.

But not macaroni and cheese, and definitely not out of a box.

Then a couple weeks before Father's Day I was watching "Barefoot Contessa" and was inspired to make a more sophisticated, grown-up version of Brandon's favorite comfort food. Ina's Truffle Mac & Cheese was sure to blow Kraft out of our cupboard for good.

First, I had to make sure I could get my hands on truffle butter. Apparently, they sell the stuff online, but I was able to find a 3 oz. package of black truffle butter at a specialty food store near my home for a whopping $10. I didn't even want to think about how many boxes of Kraft I could buy with 10 bucks.

"I know what I'm going to make you for Father's Day," I told Brandon one evening while we were watching TV.

"Oh yeah? What?"

"I'm not going to tell you. You'll just have to wait and see."

Brandon started pestering me days before. "So what's for dinner?" he asked, striving for nonchalance, as we drove home from the Farmers' Market.

"Don't worry," I assured him when he asked for the third time. "You're going to like it. Trust me."

"It's something I like, or something you think I'm going to like?" he probed.

"It's something you like, but with a twist."

Except for fresh mushrooms, which I found at the Farmers' Market, I had everything else already in my pantry. I started cooking about about an hour before my parents were due to arrive. I sauteed the mushrooms and set them aside, and once I got water boiling for the pasta, I started scalding the milk. So far so good.

I got nervous once the truffle butter hit the hot pan, and I began whisking in flour for the roux. The earthy aroma wafting over the stove top served as a constant reminder not to screw up this mother sauce, or I'd be throwing the mother of all fits.

But the bechamel turned out creamy and smooth. I knew it was done once I ran my finger along the back of the wooden spoon and the sauce didn't immediately cover over the drawn line.

Typically, I like to tinker with recipes and add my own twist. But I'd never made macaroni and cheese before. It's not even something I've eaten very much, so I decided to stick to Ina's exacting instructions.

oth the surprise and the dish itself were hugely successful. Even after I carried my jadeite casserole platter to the table, Brandon was still trying to figure out what I'd made since the macaroni was disguised by toasted breadcrumbs.

"This is the best mac & cheese I've ever had," he exclaimed, after he'd had a few bites. "The truffle butter makes a big difference."

This recipe was so good, even I've become a mac & cheese fan.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Green Tea and Guinea Pigs

Emi's upcoming 1st birthday has me in a tizzy over all the party planning details. Okay, sure it's still more than four months away, but I don't even have a theme yet! Last weekend we went to my friend's son's 1st birthday party and I was inspired by her toy blocks cake (which took her six hours to decorate.) On the way home I resolved to bake and decorate Emi's cake.

But what kind of cake should I make? And how should I decorate it? Should I go with something commercial like Sesame Street, or was there some way to incorporate Emi's favorite board book Where is Baby's Belly Button by Karen Katz? I quickly discarded both ideas - one was too easy, the other too hard. My sister wanted to make panda bear cupcakes, but I wasn't totally sold on the idea.

The next night I was up late watching "Cake Boss" when my muse struck. I remembered a beautiful wedding cake I saw on Charm City Cake's web site. It was covered in a pale green fondant with dark tree branches wending up along the sides. Delicate, pink cherry blossoms added another dimension to the cake, which was topped by an origami-like crane. I loved this cake.

"This cake is so amazing, it would almost be worth divorcing you and getting remarried, just to have this cake at my wedding," I'd told Brandon.

Not exactly appropriate for a 1 year-old's birthday.

But that didn't mean I couldn't play around with the motif, right? I'd made Emi's birth announcements using Japanese washi paper that had hopping bunnies and cherry blossoms ... Come to think of it, we had green tea cupcakes topped with fondant cherry blossoms cutouts at my baby shower.

"Brandon, I know what kind of cake I'm going to make for Emi's party!" I exclaimed, shaking my slumbering husband. "Green tea cake filled with fresh strawberries and whipped cream frosting, decorated with bunnies and cherry blossoms. What do you think?"

"I think you should go to sleep!"

But I laid awake for another hour, finalizing the details in my head. I decided to do a practice round using my Auntie Midori's family as guinea pigs. Brandon and my dad were going to play in a Bay Area golf tournament the day before Father's Day, so the whole family planned to spend the day visiting Auntie Midori.

I started baking late Thursday night, after the summer heat had waned from 96 degrees to somewhere in the low 80s. My initial plan was to use a recipe I found on the Internet, which I'd used to make green tea cupcakes for my baby shower last year. But after 45 minutes in the oven the center still jiggled slightly, while the edges were already well past "golden brown."

I decided to try a different tact.

Grabbing my copy of "Barefoot Contessa" from the cupboard, I scanned Ina's recipe for chocolate buttercream cake and a plan began to take shape. I just omitted the cocoa powder and vanilla, and substituted green tea for brewed coffee. Here's what I did:

Green Tea Cake
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature
2 tbs. green tea "matcha" powder

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottoms of two cake pans with parchment paper, then butter the paper and pans before dusting with flour. Tap the pans to remove any excess flour. In a bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt.

Using another bowl, whisk together milk, sour cream and green tea until well combined.

Cream together butter and sugars using an electric mixer set on high. Lower the mixer's speed and add the eggs. Set the mixer to low and alternately add the milk mixture and flour in thirds, starting with the milk and ending with flour.

Pour the batter evenly into the two cake pans and bake on the middle rack for 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cakes cool for 10 minutes on a rack before removing from pans. Cool cakes completely before icing.

While the cakes were baking in the oven, I started working on the decorations. I kneaded food coloring into some fondant and rolled out pink and green pancakes, before cutting out floral and leaf shapes with vegetable cutters I'd bought at Nishiki Market in Kyoto. But I had used too much rose-colored icing gel and ended up with bright, pink flowers - day-glow bright.

They were also flat and uninteresting. I tried adding some dimension by curling up the petals using my thumbs since I didn't have one of those ball tool thingies I'd seen professional pastry chefs use on TV. But all I did was overstretch the fondant. Frustrated, I scrapped the flowers and rolled them back into a ball, deciding to tackle the issue later.

I was still chewing over the problem the next morning when Brandon came into the kitchen and started examining my cake decorations. "Are they supposed to be this hard?" he asked, tapping one of the leaves. "Is it edible?" Opening another container, he pulled out the fluorescent pink sugar ball I'd abandoned the night before. "What is this?"

"Fondant," I replied defensively. "It's for the cherry blossoms."

He looked at the fondant skeptically. "Maybe you've been watching too many cake shows."

But another idea had come to me during the night. After shooing Brandon out of the kitchen, I used a knife to carefully etch veins on the now-hardened sugar leaves. It worked! The additional detailing gave the fondant leaves more depth. I used the same technique to give the flower petals some definition.

Ha! Eat that Brandon!

ince it was summer, I wanted to keep dessert light and refreshing so instead of the traditional buttercream frosting, I went with a chocolate whipped cream icing recipe I found on epicurious and just left out the cocoa.

I sliced some strawberries and dusted them with powdered sugar to take away some of the tartness. While the berries macerated in the fridge, I took out the first cake layer and placed it flatside up before carefully spreading a layer of frosting over the surface with an offset spatula. Next, I arranged strawberry slices over the frosting, making sure fruit covered the entire cake, and added more frosting. Then I carefully plopped the second cake layer on the filling, flatside up, and began frosting the rest of the cake.

When it was time to serve my dessert, I arranged three blossoms and three leaves in the center of the cake. In the end, the cake looked pretty, but the taste was only so-so. It was a lot denser than I thought it would be, and you could barely taste the green tea. I left the cake uncovered in the fridge for several hours, so that most likely contributed to the denseness and probably flavor as well.

Ultimately, I realized green tea cake with strawberry filling is probably too sophisticated for a 1 year-old. I still think it's a great flavor combination, and I'll probably tinker with the recipe a bit more. But for now, I've got to practice making white cake with buttercream frosting.

The other night I had another great idea - making homemade ice cream for Emi's birthday. I decided to let her eat cake and ice cream for the first time at her party...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Taste of New York

For a few years when I was a little girl, my family lived in New York City, and even though I was barely five when we left, I remember a lot. Going to see the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade perched on my father's shoulders, and late-night trips to the bakery for pumpernickel bagels.

Sometimes Auntie Sharon would visit, bringing with her a box of rugelach from Elmhurst's Du Bois Pastry as a special weekend treat. Possibly the world's best cookie, this Jewish sweet has a unique, tangy dough with a sweet, nutty center. I remember the anticipation as we all gathered around the table in my parents' cramped, New York kitchen, watching the twine fall away from the white, cardboard bakery box. I loved the crunchy nuts and the way puffs of powdered sugar would swirl beneath my nose when I bit into a cookie.

Despite trying countless store-bought rugelach, and sampling other bakeries attempts, I've never been able to recapture the perfection of those New York City cookies. But I have to say, this recipe I found comes pretty, damn close.

June 11 was Auntie Sharon's 60th birthday, so I sent her a belated batch of rugelach. In addition to the traditional version with raspberry jam, raisins and walnuts, I was inspired by a jar of Nutella I found in my cupboard. I replaced the jam with the chocolate hazelnut spread, then sprinkled some walnuts and cinnamon over the Nutella and OMG! Best. Cookie. Ever.

Happy Birthday Auntie Sharon!

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup, or 2 sticks, unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup apricot preserves or raspberry jam
1 cup loosely packed golden raisins, chopped
1 1/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped
milk for brushing cookies

Whisk together flour and salt in a bowl. Beat together butter and cream cheese with an electric mixer until well combined. Slowly add flour mixture and mix until a soft dough forms. If you have a stand mixer such as Kitchen Aid, you can replace the paddle with a dough hook.

Gather the dough into a small ball and wrap in plastic, then flatten into a rectangle roughly 7 by 5-inches in size. Chill in the refrigerator until firm, between 8 and 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place the rack in the middle position. Whisk 1/2 cup sugar with cinnamon. Cut dough into 4 equal pieces. Chill 3 pieces, wrapped in plastic wrap, and roll out remaining piece into a 12 by 8-inch rectangle on a well-floured surface with a floured rolling pin.

Arrange dough rectangle onto work surface with a long side nearest you. Spread 1/2 cup preserves evenly over dough with a spatula. Sprinkle 1/4 cup raisins and a rounded 1/4 cup of walnuts over jam, then sprinkle with 2 tablespoons cinnamon sugar. Using parchment as aid, roll up dough tightly into a log. Place, seam side down, in lined baking pan, then pinch ends closed and tuck underneath.

Roll out the remaining dough in the same manner and make three more logs. Place the logs on a pan 1-inch apart. Brush logs with milk. With a sharp knife, make 3/4 -inch-deep cuts crosswise in dough, but don't cut all the way through, at 1-inch intervals. (If dough is too soft, chill until firmer, 20 to 30 minutes.)

Bake until golden, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool to warm on pan or rack, about 30 minutes, then transfer logs to a cutting board and slice cookies all the way through. Then dust with powdered sugar and serve.

Update: I took some to my mom's office and instantly got recipe requests from her co-workers. I'm bringing in another batch next week for my mom's last day of work. I think this time I'm going to add some espresso to the Nutella ... Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Anime & Arare

Brandon is the faculty adviser for his school's Anime Club. Every Wednesday after school, students gather in his classroom and watch Japanese cartoons he downloads off the Internet and stores on his iPod. Now that the year is drawing to a close, he decided to throw a party for the anime club, and I thought Kaki Mochi Cookies would be the perfect treat.

Kaki mochi, also known as arare or Japanese rice crackers, is a popular Asian snack. When my family lived in Hawaii, we learned to mix it with popcorn. Oishi desu ne!

A little while ago my aunt visited the Big Island and brought back a bag of chocolate chip arare cookies. At $8 per dozen, they were pretty darn good cookies. It was the holidays, and I'd recently given birth so my drive to bake and eat was in high gear. I set out to replicate the unique cookie.

Turns out it wasn't so hard. I found a recipe online in a matter of seconds. I like to use miniature dark chocolate chips, and I also grind the rice crackers and Rise Krispies in a food processor for a few seconds rather than crushing them. It's less mess, and you get a more consistent crumble. I use a cookie dough scoop and typically end up getting about 4 dozen, not 6. I bake them in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes and they come out crisp and golden brown.

These days you can find some sort of rice cracker at most grocery stores. I grew up eating the kind that comes in a variety of shapes - flowers, diamonds, rectangles - and is packaged in a box. When we lived in Baltimore, where rice crackers were impossible to find, my grandmother would send them from California in care packages. Mom and I spent many a night sharing a box for a midnight snack.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Pub Crawl to Nowhere

When Brandon & I went on our whirlwind European tour the summer of 2005, we were on a shoestring budget, and in London that meant eating at a lot of cheap pubs. Luckily for Brandon, he loves traditional fish and chips. Me, not so much.

Then last night on a "Barefoot Contessa" rerun, she was making fish & chips, and I remembered I still had some dover fish in the freezer. Ina's recipe was simple, and looked easy enough to execute so I decided to give it a go. I've yet to go wrong with one of Ina's dishes.

But as much as I love Ina's recipes, I usually end up giving them my own little twist and her fish & chips was no exception. I substituted water in the batter for cold beer, and dredged the fish pieces in flour before dipping them in the batter. And although her recipe calls for cod, I used the thinner dover and some red snapper. Brandon and my dad preferred the snapper because it was thicker and meatier, but I liked the dover.

We also played around with the chips, using both red potatoes and Japanese yams. I discovered satsuma imo at our local Japanese market several months ago and became an instant convert. Its red skin looks very similar to your garden variety garnet yams, but inside the flesh is white. In addition to a shorter cooking time, these Japanese yams have a more subtle, sweet flavor than regular ones. I like to bake them with a little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and serve them with ham, or fry them up as tempura.

Although my English fish & chips night was a success, I have to say, I'm still not a big fan. I think next time I'm going to make a dipping sauce with some vinegar, red chilies, fish sauce and garlic to give it an Asian spin.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Craving Ramen

Before Emi was born, I decided we were going to "raise her green" and go organic. Well, as much as possible, anyway. We started by switching to organic milk while I was still pregnant, and later we began buying organic eggs, pasta, spinach, apples, etc. Just the other night, Brandon came home with mint chocolate chip ice cream from Trader Joe's that's made with milk from cows not treated with rBST.

Since Emi started eating solids, I've been making my own baby food using only fresh, USDA-certified organic fruits and veggies I found either at the Farmers' Market or sometimes Trader Joe's. I even bought an organic chicken and a bag of organic, long-grain rice to make Chinese jook, or rice porridge, for Emi.

I've been all about what's fresh, organic, Farmers' Market, made-from-scratch.

But sometimes a girl just needs some comfort food. Sapparo Ichiban instant ramen noodles is to Asian Americans, what a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is to all you round eyes out there.

So after picking up more BPA-free containers for Emi's homemade, organic baby food, and a quick trip to the natural food store to buy organic apples, sweet potatoes and bread flour, I satisfied my hunger with a steaming bowl of reconstituted noodles swimming in MSG-laden broth.


Breaking Bread

Baking used to be the bane of my culinary existence.

Every year when the crisp, fall weather turned gray and chilly, I'd seek comfort in the spicy sweet warmth of the kitchen. The holidays, especially, compelled me to bake batch after batch of cookies, cakes and brownies - most of which were a dismal failure.

There was the year I made brownies for a hundred or so students. After the first barely scorched batch stuck to the pan, I scrapped the brownies and switched to cupcakes using an old family classic - chocolate Kahlua cake. It wasn't until I sent Brandon to school with two flats of cupcakes that I realized I was feeding alcohol-laced baked goods to middle school kids.

That was the last time I baked for Brandon's students. (For the record, my cupcakes were a hit.)

But make no mistake, I could just as easily screw up Kahlua cake. After years of experience stirring together box cake mix, sour cream, chocolate chip cookies and Kahlua (recipe to follow), my success rate was pretty grim. I'd say 7 out of 10 times the cake would stick to the Bundt pan, be it non-stick, stoneware or silicone.

I blame the equipment.

Whenever I would drag out the Baker's Dozen chocolate and my jadeite mixing bowl, Brandon raised his eyebrows. "You do know you make the world's hardest brownies, right?"

I started to offer a sheepish, "I can't bake," every time I gave someone my homemade biscotti.

After Emi was born I found myself spending more time cooking, but the art of baking eluded me. One day I tried making French baguette, and the result was so hard and tasteless not even our dog Chase would eat it. "Never again," I swore as my baked rock crashed to the bottom of the trash can.

But then my "baby" cousin Christina visited for the weekend - and she came bearing bread. A beginning food blogger herself, she'd stumbled upon a recipe for No Knead Bread in the New York Times Dining & Wine section as well as an accompanying video. Christina's round loaf dusted with wheat bran was the perfect blend of chewy and crusty. Golden brown on the outside, white and holey on the inside - it looked and tasted like actual bread! I was impressed.

Inspired, I decided to make another attempt at baking bread. I watched the video a couple of times, then read through the recipe before carefully going over Christina's email with its helpful notes.

"Make sure to use lukewarm water for this- not TOO hot, because that'll kill the yeast," she warned. "I don't use a thermometer, but just stick my pinky in the water to see if it's cool enough. Microwaving your water for about 45 seconds seems to do the trick."

Luckily she specified what kind of yeast to use - active dry yeast - or I would've been hunting all over town for "instant yeast." Another useful hint: let the dough rise in the oven or microwave (power off) if your house isn't 70 degrees or warmer.

She also suggested covering the dough with parchment paper or a silicone mat for the second rise, rather than another tea towel. Once the required two hours had passed, it was easy to simply lift the towel out of the bowl and roll the dough into my beloved Le Creuset dutch oven. I found using a damp towel helps more cornmeal or wheat bran stick to the towel and less dough.

I couldn't have been happier with my bread. I didn't even have to oil the dutch oven - the loaf just slid out with a flick of the wooden spatula. It was golden and crisp, and just like Christina's it looked and tasted like bread you buy in the store! And we're not talking Wonder bread here. It was on par with the artisan bread sold at Trader Joe's.

Wrapped in a plastic bag, my bread lasted several days before going stale. Cut in wedges or sliced thinly with a good, sharp bread knife, I was able to make salami & butter sandwiches like the ones Brandon & I ate in Paris.

I experimented with the next two loaves.

A few days later, I roasted a head of garlic by cutting the top off and drizzling it with olive oil before sticking it in the oven wrapped in foil at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes. After it had cooled, I added it to a batch of freshly made bread dough and some 20 hours later I had roasted garlic bread.

By then I was already figuring out how to make sun-dried tomato bread. I took jar sun-dried tomatoes that can be found in most grocery stores, and chopped about a quarter cup in my mini-prep food processor. I used a little bit of the olive oil the tomatoes were packed in to smooth out the paste, then gently folded it with the bread dough. The result was a sweet, tangy bread great for toasting with fresh mozzarella or a bit of drizzled garlic-infused olive oil.

These days, I no longer buy bread at the supermarket. This incredibly easy recipe has opened up a whole new, culinary world to me. Maybe, I can bake.

Kahlua Cake
1 German chocolate cake mix with pudding
2 eggs
1/2 cup Kahlua liqueur
1/4 cup vegetable oil (or less)
16 oz. sour cream
12 oz. chocolate chips

Combine all ingredients, and pour into a greased Bundt pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. Blot the top of the cake with a paper towel to absorb any oil, and let cool for a couple hours before taking out of the pan. Dust with powdered sugar before serving. Note: Cupcakes take only about 35 minutes, but if you're serving to children omit Kahlua.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Blossoming Chef

Two of my favorite TV chefs - Ina Garten and Mario Batali - say the best way to cook is go to your local Farmers' Market and get inspiration from what's fresh and in season. Mario frequently points out on his show that Italians feel they're entitled to have only the best ingredients. So for the past three weekends, Brandon & I have been going to a nearby Farmers' Market, and although I haven't had the best of luck with other markets this one turned out to be a foodie bonanza.

There were great bargains, including bunches of fresh herbs for only a buck and big, beautiful, red onions for $1.50. We also saw produce you'd never find in a regular supermarket like fresh garlic and English peas, garbanzo beans still on their stems, and a nice selection of organic fruits and veggies, including mushrooms.

We'd just arrived at the market Sunday morning when something bright and yellow caught my eye as we passed the vendor I usually buy onions and garlic from. An Asian woman who runs the stall was holding a bouquet of squash blossoms and talking to a man. "These went fast," she told him. "We put out a whole box of them 15 minutes ago, and now this is the only one left."

A few years back, squash blossoms seemed to be the It girl of the culinary world. Restaurants were serving them for a pretty penny, and magazines ran articles touting their tasty versatility not to mention nutritional value. They even made a guest appearance on an episode of "The Sopranos" when Tony requested them for Meadow's graduation party. I'd always wanted to try the pretty blossoms, but didn't have the faintest idea what to do with them. Still, I was electrified by the challenge.

I hovered and began to circle my prey.

As soon as was polite, I pounced. "How much for the squash blossoms?"I asked, willing to splurge on the delicacy. I walked away with a dozen blossoms for $2. My head was swimming with possibilities. I could stuff them; I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that the natural shape of the flowers made them ideal vessels for stuffing. Or, I could saute them, maybe fry them up like tempura... I couldn't wait to go home and search the 'Net for recipes.

Later, once I'd finally settled on a dish and planned out the rest of the menu, I invited my parents to dinner.

Throughout the day, whenever I wasn't doing the dishes, breastfeeding or playing with Emi on the floor, I took the opportunity to cook.

Preparation for my Italian feast began early in the morning. While Brandon fed Emi her breakfast of peas, potatoes and applesauce, I made the filling for my stuffed squash blossoms, which I planned to batter and fry closer to dinnertime. The recipe I found online didn't specify what kind of mushroom to use in the filling, but I happened to have dried porcinis leftover from another dish.

With the filling prepared and chilling in the fridge, I set about cleaning my beautiful bouquet of veggies. Squash blossoms have a orange, crumbly, furry stamen inside the flowers and I wasn't sure whether to leave them in or not. I Googled how to clean squash blossoms and out they came, along with the pointy leaves at the base of each flower.

The blossoms had to be handled very carefully because it's important to maintain the integrity of the trumpet-like shape. Since Emi was napping, I decided to go ahead and stuff the flowers, too. Carefully, I peeled open the petals, which were slightly wilted after three days. Then, using a tiny baby spoon, I scooped dollops of ricotta cheese, mushrooms, garlic and basil into each flower and closed the petals.

Several hours later - after a quick workout at the gym while Emi's gong gong babysat - I was back in the kitchen, mixing the batter and putting the final touches on my tomato risotto and roasted portobello mushrooms. (Note: I'd never tried any of Emeril Lagasse's recipes before, and was surprised to find the King of Bam's risotto lacking in flavor, so I added some white wine and chicken bouillon to the cooking broth and it ended up being pretty tasty. Also, I'm not a big fan of creamy sauces so I omitted the heavy cream.)

The batter was easy to whip together. I halved the recipe since I only had 12 flowers, but I added a little extra beer than the recipe called for because I wanted a light, thin coating, similar to tempura. I also only let the batter chill for 15 minutes, instead of 30. I don't have a really good reason for cutting the time in half, except I was impatient - and hungry.

Frying was the trickiest part. I was skeptical that 1/2 inch of oil would be enough to properly cook the flowers. I also worried the filling would seep out and ruin the dish. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. I was able to cook all the flowers in two batches, and it only took about 10 minutes from start to finish.

"Can I try one?" Brandon asked, as I plated the blossoms and sprinkled them with a pinch of kosher salt.

"Not until I take a picture."

My first attempt at making squash blossoms was a culinary triumph! They were perfect. Light and crunchy on the outside, the filling oozing with plenty of cheesy, garlicky goodness inside, and surrounding it all, a bright, fresh, zucchini-like flavor.

Dinner was a hit, and even Brandon had to admit I no longer screw up a recipe the first time I make it.

"You're turning into a real, gourmet chef," he said, eyeing the last squash blossom.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Going Garbonzo

On a recent Sunday at the Farmers' Market, Brandon & I spotted something we'd never seen before - fresh garbanzo beans. They were so fresh, they were still tightly clinging to their branches. We couldn't resist the novelty and bought a bunch thinking we could make hummus. Once we got home however, we discovered why most people buy garbanzo beans dried or in cans.

Fresh garbanzo beans are a lot of work.

After painstakingly plucking pods off scratchy, dirt-laden stalks, we still had to shell all the beans. The end result was about two cups of crunchy, green garbanzos. Raw, they tasted like ... well, beans.

"They're green," I said, examining them through the plastic sandwich bag. "Does this mean the hummus will be green?"

Brandon grunted something unintelligible as he tossed them in a pot of water.

Here's what he did:

2 cups garbanzo beans
2 cloves garlic roughly chopped
juice from 1/2 lemon
"couple globs" of tahini sesame paste
"quite a bit" of olive oil
a pinch of sea salt (or kosher salt)

Boil the garbanzo beans "until you feel they've been boiled enough" (or fork tender). Blend in food processor along with garlic, lemon juice, tahini, olive oil and salt, until it reaches a smooth consistency. Season to taste. Serve cold or room temperature, with flatbread or pitas.

Note: I noticed later that the hummus had hardened a bit in the refrigerator, so I suggest reserving some of the cooking liquid and using it to smooth out the hummus after blending it in the food processor.

And in case you're wondering, tahini is a Middle Eastern sesame paste that can be found at specialty food stores.

If you use fresh garbanzo beans as we did, you will find that the hummus is indeed green.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Steak Escape

For the past few weeks, Brandon has been bringing home rib eye steaks from Trader Joe's on Friday - kind of as a weekend treat. He marinates them for a couple of hours in soy sauce and pepper, a trick he picked up from a Vietnamese friend in high school. It's simple and very tasty.

This week, we didn't get around to cooking the steaks until Sunday, and this time I thought I'd kick things up a bit by adding red pepper flakes, cilantro, ginger, garlic and some fish sauce to the marinade. So. Freaking. Good!

Brandon cooked the steaks on our grill pan and I served them with basmati rice (we ran out of Chinese rice) and spinach sauteed in olive oil and garlic. It was like the best kind of Asian comfort food, and the basmati rice was a surprisingly tasty, aromatic substitute for the usual Chinese long-grain rice.

A definite keeper.