Archive for November, 2008

Harvest Meals: Part II

November 26, 2008

There is so much to do in preparation for the Thanksgiving feast tomorrow, but I wanted to quickly write about the tasty harvest meal George and I had for dinner last night. As I previously wrote, I went a little hog-wild, or legume-wild I should say, at the Alhambra Farmers’ Market on Sunday and pretty much bought a farmers’ market sampler platter of vegetables. Wanting to eat and cook as much of the produce as possible before Thanksgiving, as it most likely will not get eaten afterwards, I created a culinary plan to make “harvest meals” every night this week.

Sunday night, as my previous posting indicates, was somewhat of a success. The blackberry-red wine reduction was a culinary travesty, but our roasted vegetables and plum tart were huge successes. On Monday, I had good intentions of making a ratatouille with the fresh zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes I bought, but due to an unanticipated, and fortunately very short-lived illness, George had to take over cooking Monday’s dinner and he passed on making the ratatouille. He did make a mean taco and we saved the ratatouille for last night.

Sauteed Ratatouille

Sauteed Ratatouille

So…Ratatouille. Admittedly, I wanted my ratatouille to resemble Remi’s ratatouille in the movie Ratatouille, but I decided to simplify the ratatouille recipes I found and just make more of a ratatouille hash. Chopping up an onion, a few small zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes, I sauteed the vegetables in a little olive oil and seasoned them with salt, pepper, pepperincino flakes, oregano and a lot of fresh basil. It wasn’t bad! It was a very light and very fresh side-dish that was served next to baked chicken breasts. Of course the ratatouille could have been so much more, but for a quick and easy mid-week harvest meal, it couldn’t have been more perfect. So keeping in step with the culinary theme this week, a huge dent was made in our agri-rator (a refrigerator full of agricultural produce) and in the spirit of the Thanksgiving week, another harvest meal was had!

On deck for tonight’s harvest meal….something with green beans!

Until next time….

PS – As a quick aside, I did remember to properly salt my eggplant for the ratatouille. I began salting the eggplant about an hour before I was ready to use them. The salting process really makes all the difference – my eggplant was actually edible this time!

Harvest Meals: A Week of Thanksgiving

November 24, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!


I really love this time of year. In the third week of November, I usually start to feel a magical buzz in the air, which always seems to have a crescendoing effect up to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love that it is a holiday that is not materialistic or greedy, but one that simply brings family and friends together for a meal. Thanksgiving, historically, was a harvest meal celebrating the cooperation between the English settlers and Native Americans in 1621 in which thanks was given to the successful bounty of crops. I really love Thanksgiving’s symbolism and while most Americans are not literally giving thanks to a successful crop season each year, our Thanksgivings – or at least mine – truly does symbolize a harvest meal.

The anticipation and preparation of Thanksgiving is almost has much fun as eating the meal itself. This year, while I am not hosting Thanksgiving or preparing the turkey, I am making a few side dishes. I am very excited for my role this year, mostly because I feel like I have graduated from sous-chef or kitchen helper to “chef contributor.” I take my role seriously and have well-researched the types of dishes I want to prepare, focusing mainly on recipes that can be made from fresh and local ingredients.

Brussel Sprouts - Alhambra Farmers' Market

Brussel Sprouts - Alhambra Farmers' Market

After deciding on a brussel sprouts dish and perhaps a cauliflower gratin of some sort, I made my way to the Alhambra farmers’ market. Alhambra, a town nestled between San Marino, South Pasadena and San Gabriel, offers a farmers’ market every Sunday that is a real treasure trove of fruit and legume wonders. Although I was at the farmers’ market to buy just the few items I needed for my Thanksgiving side dishes, the spirit of the the harvest got me a little produce-happy. Quickly forgetting that it is a short week due to the holiday, and that we are traveling this weekend, I bought enough fruits and vegetables to last us two weeks. Armed with fresh plums, pears, and blackberries, a few varieties of basil, four pounds of brussel sprouts, a head of cauliflower the size of a garbage can lid, a few pounds of string beans, heirloom tomatoes, baby zucchini, and the list goes on…I left the farmers market feeling the need to give thanks to my bounty of crops.

While I think George is slightly skeptical of the farm that is now residing in our refrigerator, I have devised a culinary plan in which George and I will honor Thanksgiving’s symbolism by having a harvest meal every night this week. And our meal last night did just that. Using the fresh blackberries, I made a blackberry-red wine reduction and served the sauce over sauteed pork chops. This recipe idea, while admittedly novel, is not one that I would recommend. The reduction was bitter and almost a bit acidic, and even though the ingredients seemed so benign, (shallots, wine, chicken broth, blackberry puree and salt and pepper), the sauce did not come together as I hoped. Fortunately, the rest of our dinner did and we enjoyed perfectly roasted potatoes and carrots and a fresh salad that incorporated the heirloom tomatoes I had bought earlier in the day. And for dessert, well that just took the cake…or tart!

A Beautiful and Tasty Plum Tart!

A Beautiful and Tasty Plum Tart!

Check out this plum tart! Not only did it actually look beautiful, but it was a simple recipe that accentuated the flavors of the fresh plums. The filling was simply quartered plums placed symmetrically around the tart shell with a sugar, cornstarch, vanilla and lemon juice batter poured over the plums. The tart was so tasty and thankfully off-setted my blackberry reduction debacle.

Our Sunday night dinner may have made a dent in our produce-laden refrigerator, but it also jump-started this important holiday week. While George and I will have another harvest meal tonight, The Alhambra Farmers’ Market – and the local produce Southern California has to offer – certainly puts the meaning of Thanksgiving into perspective this year.

Happy Thanksgiving and until next time…

Egged-On By Eggplant

November 18, 2008

Beautiful Baby Eggplants

Beautiful Baby Eggplants


I have been going a little gung-ho with the local farmers’ market recently. My seasonal clock has not quite adjusted to the California growing season, and I just cannot get over that I can still buy local produce this late into November. I’m used to buying brussel sprouts and perhaps a few lingering heads of cauliflower this time of year in New York, not the variety of fruits and vegetables that are still adorning the farmers’ markets in the Pasadena area.

I have scouted out many of the farmers’ markets in and around Pasadena and discovered these beautiful organic baby eggplants at the Old L.A. Farmer’s Market in Highland Park. Highland Park, which is just minutes down the 110 Freeway from Pasadena, is one of the oldest settled areas in Los Angeles. Nestled right next to the Arroyo Seco, Highland Park seems to be a culturally diverse, hipster kind of community, and reminded me a little of Astoria Queens, without the el train.

Feeling right at home in my Queens away from Queens, I couldn’t resist buying these baby eggplants despite the fact that I generally steer clear of them unless prepared by someone else. I find eggplant to be a lot of work and I lack the patience to properly salt and soak them to remove some of the vegetable’s natural bitterness. However, these baby eggplants were so purple, so fresh and so delicious looking, and averaging about an inch and a half to two inches tall and roughly an inch wide, I anticipated them being tender and sweet and not as bitter as the larger eggplant we commonly see in the market. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

My plan was to slice these baby eggplants width-wise, season them with salt, pepper and paprika and sauté them in a little olive oil. This is my go-to preparation with many vegetables, especially yellow squash and zucchini. I really love sautéed vegetables and seasoning them with paprika really adds a nice flavor when blended with the olive oil. So I got to work on sautéing my eggplant, foregoing the laborious salting process. Big mistake. Due to my eggplant naiveté, I did not realize that salting eggplant not only tenderizes the eggplant meat, but pulls out some of its water content making it less permeable to absorbing oil used when cooking.

A few minutes into sautéing my eggplant, I found that I had to add more olive oil because the eggplant had absorbed all of what was in the pan, and despite using a non-stick skillet, my eggplant turned crispy and stuck to the pan’s surface. Although my eggplant did not cook into tender slices of perfectly seasoned eggplant, I did learn two important culinary lessons. First, eggplant, no matter its size should not be subjected to culinary short-cuts. And second, I may have inadvertently invented something new – eggplant chips! Perhaps my culinary disaster could turn into a snack-food revolution?!

Until next time…

Lamb Kabobs: Skewering a Memory

November 14, 2008
Yummy Lamb Kabobs and Rice Pilaf

Yummy Lamb Kabobs and Rice Pilaf

Before moving to Pasadena, George and I were living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We were only Upper West Siders for a brief time – George lived in our UWS apartment for five months before moving to California; I was there for eight months. It was a short living stint, but a very memorable one.

Our apartment was just north of the tony Upper West Side, but provided ideal access to Central Park, relatively inexpensive parking (inexpensive for NYC), the express 2/3 train and, last but not least, good restaurants. There was a Mediterranean restaurant a few blocks away on Amsterdam, a small bistro-style restaurant that almost had no presence – meaning, you could walk by it and not notice it was there. But inside, the restaurant was warm and inviting – a sort of clean, well-lighted place, and almost had the ambiance of eating in someone’s home. The menu was limited – a few fresh salads and signature starters like humus and Babaghanoush, and for entrees, a few tangine dishes and traditional kabob combinations.

The restaurant’s lamb kabobs were really quite good and I found myself thinking about them recently. Before long, my thoughts turned into a craving for lamb kabobs, which then lead to NYC nostalgia, which then became how can I satisfy this craving, which finally lead to how can I duplicate those memorable lamb kabobs from the Upper West Side?

Not really knowing all that much about the seasonings the restaurant used on their kabobs, I decided to keep mine simple as I really wanted to enjoy the lamb’s flavor and tenderness. I bought some good quality lamb from my local butcher, cubed it myself and seasoned it simply with a little extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. I skewered the lamb with fresh red bell pepper, red onions and cherry tomatoes and grilled them until the meat was about medium in temperature. The simplicity of the seasoning really accentuated the lamb and the grilled vegetables married perfectly with it. To round out our Mediterranean meal, I made a quick Greek yogurt dipping sauce that couldn’t have been easier to make and tastier to eat! By combining a cup of Greek yogurt, diced cucumber, a bit of dill and surprisingly, a few dashes of cumin, the dipping sauce was the perfect complement to the lamb kabobs and brought the memories and flavors of our old Upper West Side neighborhood to our Pasadena living room!

Until next time…

The Comforts of a Roast Chicken

November 8, 2008

The Magical Roast Chicken - With Oranges!

The Magical Roast Chicken - With Oranges!

I have said this before, but there is something quite special about a roast chicken (see also, The Magical Roast Chicken, 10/2006 archive, http://www.chefs-in-the-city.blogspot.com).  A roast chicken can be as simple or as decadent as you wish, but one thing is for sure, you can never take away its humility. It seems funny calling a chicken humble, or at least calling its traditional method of preparation humble, but a roast chicken is my ultimate comfort food. A roast chicken has a way of calming me; fond memories are resurrected with its smells and flavors, and it often seems like a bad day can be turned into a good day with a simple bite into its crispy herbed skin.

So much can be written about the magical roast chicken – most of which I will save for other postings. I do want to mention that Julia Child praised a good roast chicken and now that I am living in her birthplace of Pasadena, I find it difficult to not think about her young life here, especially as her grandparents’ path to Pasadena was much like my ancestors journey across this country to California. I want to devote a lot of this blog to her, of course many others have, but I find the irony remarkable that our lives while generations apart have someone crossed paths.

But, alas, the humble roast chicken! Even though my husband and I have had so many good changes happen so quickly in our lives recently, it is easy to get sidetracked by some of the difficulties we now face. I was a bit bummed out the other day, mostly because I am still unemployed, and decided that we needed a comforting dinner, one that would take my mind off of life’s stresses. Turning to the dish that comforts me the most, I roasted a chicken – a citrusy chicken because after all, from apples to oranges…

The inspiration for my orange-infused roast chicken came easily. If lemon and chicken pair together so well, why wouldn’t oranges and chicken? With that, I began by thoroughly washing a whole chicken and patting it dry with a paper towel. I placed the whole chicken in a greased roasting plan, along with some nice roasting vegetables of carrots and onions. I then thinly sliced a few pieces of orange and slid the slices under the chicken’s skin. I wanted the oranges to not only infuse flavor into the chicken, but also keep the meat moist. I then rubbed butter over the top of my chicken, seasoned it with salt, pepper and thyme, and then juiced half of an orange over my chicken. I cut the remaining orange into wedges, placed a few of the wedges in the chicken’s cavity, and left the other wedges to roast in the pan with the carrots and onions. I did add a bit of white wine so there was some liquid in my roasting pan.

While the chicken was roasting (25 minutes a pound on a 325 degree oven), I basted the chicken with melted butter – not too much, but enough to brown the skin and make it crispy! When the chicken was done, it was time to make the gravy, because after all, what’s a roast chicken without the gravy? Keeping within my theme of orange-infused chicken, the base of my gravy was the orange juice and wine that remained in the pan. I added a bit of chicken stock and thickened it with flour. The gravy was light and flavorful and coupled with the orange-flavored meat, the roast chicken smelled and tasted like California. With my first bite, hints of citrus and thyme brought happiness to my mouth and comfort to my day. So while the flavors of my roast chicken may have reflected our new home, its special comfort certainly brought me back to what is home.

Until next time..

Cooking Carnitas: An Undefeated Season

November 2, 2008

My Nittany Lions are having quite the season. Ranked #3 nationally, Penn State is leading its Big Ten Conference and may be well on its way to playing for the National Championship. As a new Pasadena resident, I would personally prefer Penn State to play in the Rose Bowl this year, but Coach Paterno definitely deserves a chance at a national title.

Go Penn State!

Go Penn State!

Penn State football is a huge part of my life. As a student, there was nothing better than football Saturdays in State College, PA, and I will never forget how magical Beaver Stadium became with 100,000 cheering fans in it. But game days were not always just about a big win. The day was about spending time with friends, tailgating in the stadium’s parking lot and grilling hot-dogs and hamburgers – or in my case – schlepping a pot of baked beans across campus to a friend’s tailgate! Over the course of four years, I developed a few fall football Saturday traditions and today, no one can come between me, my television and my kitchen when Penn State is playing!

So much about a college football game is the game-day food! From wings and pizza to chips and beer, I think every college football fan gets a pass from eating healthy when there is a football game to watch! When living in New York City, it was easy to find a neighborhood bar sponsoring a Penn State party during the game, or find a restaurant that would deliver wings and pizza to our doorsteps in time for kick-off. But now that we are living across the country in California – in USC and UCLA territory – we haven’t yet found a Penn State presence in Pasadena or a restaurant that delivers greasy bar food.

But we are not letting this stop us from celebrating football traditions. Instead, we are putting West coast twists on our game-day menus and watching Penn State beat Ohio State from the comfort of our own apartment. For the past several football Saturdays, George and I have slow-cooked carnitas, and in the spirit of the football season, my carnitas are undefeated! We got the inspiration for making carnitas after having them for the first time at a party this past summer. The host slow-cooked her carnitas in a crockpot overnight, which turned the pork into shreds of tender juicy goodness. Thinking that the recipe could easily be duplicated and believing that carnitas were appropriate for a California football menu, I set out to master carnitas.

Before heading out to the local market, I did a quick online recipe search for carnitas so I had a sense of the ingredients I would need to buy at the market. Knowing I needed onions, celery, garlic and a few key spices like cumin and bay leaves, I was not clear on the cut of pork I needed. Fortunately, I found that my local butcher not only knew a lot about chopping chuck, but also knew a thing or two about cooking carnitas! The butcher – a professionally trained chef – advised that I buy two pounds of pork butt over other cuts of pork as the pork butt tenderizes well in a slow cooker and provides a lot of rich flavor as it has a higher content of fat.

Carnitas In The Making!

Carnitas In The Making!

On Friday night, we began preparing our carnitas. Cubing the pork and chopping the garlic, onions and celery, we covered all the ingredients with a liberal amount of chicken broth in our slow cooker. We added some salt and pepper, cumin and two bay leaves and let the carnitas simmer on low all night. By Saturday morning, the slow-cooked pork was tender, easily shreddable and looking like a sure win for our game-day snack! A few minutes before we were ready to eat our carnitas, we transferred the carnitas into a large skillet to cook off some of the excess liquid. I also found that by sauteing the carnitas, the seasonings were really able to absorb into each other. We served the carnitas in corn tortillas with a little dollop of sour cream. They were so delicious, and for me, a big win on a new West coast football tradition. Go Penn State!

Until next time…