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I laughed. I cried. I ate a lot of biscuits.

There are people who expect biscuits alongside their dinner and then there is everyone else.

We were not biscuit eaters growing up. We were popover people. We also had a thing for Yorkshire pudding.  There are good reasons to love popovers. You don’t need to worry about over-handling the dough (as with biscuits) or about yeast and timing as you might with dinner rolls. Popovers are so easy to throw together, as well as being rather elegant – why branch out? In comparison, I always imagined biscuits to be a little doughy and there is a mythology about what type of flour to use and dough handling that seems somewhat opaque. (I must confess that my only real biscuit eating experience came from sporadic visits to Kentucky Fried Chicken – perhaps not the ideal place to form an opinion.) Also, culturally, they belong in the south and we are decidedly not southern. Regularly making biscuits here in Seattle would make about as much sense as nicknaming your son Bubba. Aren’t biscuits a regional speciality? Something to dabble with when serving ham or catfish? We served ham with scalloped potatoes. Biscuits were never a consideration.

And then my friend Alicia sent me that book I told you about, Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, and all my carefully formed opinions (some might say biases) went flying out the window. I’m still not sure what inspired me to make Sweet Potato Biscuits. We don’t even eat sweet potatoes that often so it wasn’t like I had a lonely sweet potato sitting on the counter. Perhaps it was the photograph. Anyway, since last week I have made the Sweet Potato Biscuits four times! Actually, since I doubled the recipe three of those times, it might mean that I have made them seven times this week!

It was not a week without troubles. While the dough was gorgeous, flecked deep orange and webbed with airy bubbles, the biscuits did not always rise as high as I hoped they would, although the first batch was reasonable. That batch rose to a height of about 3/4 of an inch. Still, I felt they could be better. The next try, the biscuits turned out distinctly and disappointingly flat.  See below.

Ridiculously flat. They were edible - but only just.

I wondered if it was because at Trader Joe’s the yams were masquerading as sweet potatoes. (I knew from the beginning they were really yams but had forged ahead anyway) Or, was it because I simply don’t have the mythic Southern touch?!

I went out and bought a real pale fleshed sweet potato and this time they were about 3/4 of an inch again, but still no better than the first batch I made originally with yams. However, despite all my troubles with flat or flat-ish biscuits, I couldn’t walk away. Sweetly tender, enriched by the vivid starchy mash, these biscuits had such possibilities! If I could get them to rise just a little higher, the sky would be the limit, so to speak. Imagine adding a little crumbled bacon, or fried sage leaves? What about some chopped chili? Could there be a place for andouille sausage? Fried crisp and crumbled into the dough? How about a little candied ginger?…but that would have to wait. First I would have to find the right recipe.

I found recipes by Paula Deen and Southern Cooking (obviously), and Martha Stewart, but finally settled on one from Chow.com.  All the recipes looked excellent and from them I gleaned that everyone has trouble getting Sweet Potato Biscuits to rise as high as the plain kind. Some added baking soda in addition to the baking powder. Some used buttermilk. Most added more flour than called for in my original recipe. Many advised to make roll out biscuits as opposed to the drop kind, opining that if they were packed a little closer together they would lift and stabilize each other. The discussion sounded so Southern. Because there was a cup of leftover mashed sweet potato in my refrigerator from the last experiment, I got started right away.

30 minutes later: Success! Part of the fun of biscuits is that they are actually quite easy to whip up and this recipe doesn’t require hard-to-find White Lily or Southern Biscuit Flour – the traditional choice for Southern biscuit makers. When it comes time to knead, back off a little. This dough needs no man-handling. Just work on a well floured board. Initially, I made these to go with a beautiful baked ham but now, my family imagines that they go with everything. Although maybe not Chinese food or pizza…

Sweet Potato Biscuits (minimally adapted from Chow.com)

Imagine making a tiny version with chutney and sharp white cheddar to go with cocktails….

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk or 3/4 cup whole milk + 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 cup baked, mashed sweet potato (about 1 medium potato) or yam
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), frozen
  • Heavy cream, for brushing the tops

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F  with the rack set in the middle of the oven.
  2.  Using a large mixing bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients.
  3.  In a medium sized bowl, whisk the buttermilk and sweet potato together until smooth.
  4. Using the largest holes in a box grater, grate the frozen butter. Toss with dry ingredients until butter is evenly dispersed through the flour.
  5. Pour in the buttermilk and sweet potatoes. Mix lightly until dough forms a shaggy mass.
  6. Flour the counter and turn out the dough. Knead gently – for about 30 seconds, – just until the dough hangs together. It will still be sort of shaggy.
  7. Pat into a circle  with floured hands to a thickness of about 3/4 inch. Using a biscuit cutter or a drinking glass, cut the dough into rounds.  Push the scraps together again and cut out the rest. Discard the rest of the dough as too much handling makes for tough biscuits.
  8. Put a piece of parchment on a baking sheet. Place the biscuits on top and brush them with heavy cream.
  9. Bake until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes.
To roast a sweet potato or yam for use in this recipe, set the oven to 375. Place either one large or two medium sweet potatoes on a baking sheet and roast for 40 minutes or so – until very soft. Cool, mash, and get started.

Now that that’s taken care of I will go make myself a ham and fried egg sandwich on a warm sweet potato biscuit…

For more on traditional biscuit making see this article.

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Swiss Chard

I’m writing this from the car in the corner of the parking lot at the soccer field. My kids got a weird combination of Cliff bars, macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks and apple slices for dinner tonight, depending on where they were going and what they were doing. Last night was slightly better.

I have been missing making dinner but I didn’t know how much until I got out my big sauté pan. The way it clangs as I drag it over the iron grate on the stove – I love that sound. My black apron with the orange pig embroidered on the bib has been hanging limply on its peg for weeks. I wrap the long strings twice around my waist then tie them in a bow in front. On the table is a heap of chard, rainbow stems poking out from the wide green leaves, papery garlic, a bottle of aged vinegar with a tiny cork on top, a tall slim green bottle of olive oil and a little prep bowl of dried chili.

I roll up my sleeves. Set the heat to medium high. Then peel and slice a couple of cloves of garlic. Swing an open bottle of green olive oil in a wide circle over the hot pan. A good pinch of dried chili, rough on my fingertips and stinging them a little bit. The garlic goes in then there’s the sizzle and the scent. Don’t let the pan get too hot. In about a minute the garlic slowly becomes golden, molten and then the air is charged with it. I lift a mountain of wet ribbons of rainbow chard and heap them in, up and over the edge of the pan. Turned with a wooden spoon, over and over. They settle down and soften. Pop the lid on and turn down the heat. In ten minutes with a few tosses and turns, they’re nearly done. A splash of sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar, a little softened butter and a generous pinch of sea salt. Finished. 12 minutes worth of work.

I am not sure why making chard this way is so gratifying. It just is.

 Sautéed Swiss Chard 

  • 2 bunches Swiss Chard
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • pinch of red chili flakes
  • sherry or balsamic vinegar
  • softened unsalted butter
  • sea salt
  1.  Wash the chard carefully and slice into 1” ribbons. Do not dry it.
  2. Heat a 12” sauté pan over medium heat heat while you peel the 2 cloves of garlic and slice them thinly.
  3. Pour the olive oil over the pan. It should shimmer immediately.
  4. Add the chili and the garlic. Stir until the garlic is deeply golden. Don’t burn it whatever you do. Brown garlic is bitter and not in a good way.
  5. When the garlic is golden, add the chard. Toss until it settles down a little and is coated with the olive oil. Clamp a lid on top, turn down the heat and wait 5 minutes.
  6. Take a peek and toss it. Does it look dry? Add a tablespoon or two of water. Stir and clamp down the lid again. In five minutes the chard should be tender.
  7. Remove the lid and toss in the butter. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of vinegar over the top. Season with salt to taste – I think about 1/2 a teaspoon should do the trick.

I didn’t write about the kalbi skewers I picked up at the grocery store. Or the nice but bland jasmine rice on the side. There wasn’t much to say about this dinner, but after weeks of bland quick cooking before soccer practice, that little hit of hot garlic was so satisfying.

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Delicious Detox Day 5 – A bit hungry

5:00 AM. Saturday morning. The sun is out for the first time in months and my bedroom is too bright. The birds are shrill. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the sun or the birds though. I’m awake. Nobody else in my house is. I’m awake because I. Am. Starving.

I look over at Martin who is snoring softly. To my ear, incessantly. I think I might be able to go back to sleep, despite my growling stomach if only…I give him a quick kick. Just a little one. A stage whisper – You’re snoring! Roll over! He snorts and flips over muttering. I look at the clock. 5:07. Ugh. Too early to get up. I could sneak down to the living room with a book but I don’t. I’m too hungry.

After an eternity of tossing, I see that it is 5:55. Since it is so bright outside I wonder if there is any chance that this might be perceived as a reasonable time for a cup of coffee?! A latte would totally help. Ooh, and maybe a little sandwich! How early can I wake Martin? Maybe today I can wake him up pretty early. The sun is very bright and perhaps he’ll think it’s later than it really is…

I nudge him with my elbow and whisper – Hey, are you awake?! – He sighs then groans. – Wha?! Wha’s wrong?! –  I try to smile winningly at his closed eyes, hoping he’s peeking but he is totally fast asleep and me smiling isn’t helping at all.  Maybe I can hold out a little longer.

6:15 AM. I think this might be when the timer on our coffee maker starts the drip and the scent of coffee should start wafting up the stairs at any moment. The coffee could be ready in less than 5 minutes! I toss dramatically and sigh, yanking the covers in my direction. One of Martin’s eyes pops open. He stares at me blearily and then his eyes drift shut again. I think he read my mind. – The coffee doesn’t start until 6:45 on the weekends. So don’t look at me like that. – If he could roll his eyes he would, but his eyes are closed. I have to plead. – Oh please, I’m starving!– and I try smiling winningly again. No dice.

I think he can probably feel the intense beam of my gaze against his eyelids. – Sarah. My legs aren’t working yet, I can’t even move my arms. I am not ready to get up. You’ll have to make the coffee if you want it this early.

I am so desperately hungry though. Too hungry to make coffee. Too hungry to make toast. So I beg. He caves. Thank goodness!

Ten minutes later Martin returns, shaking his head, rolling his eyes, but he is carrying a tray. A steaming bowl of a latte scented with nutmeg and cinnamon, a tiny but excellent sandwich, sharp Italian cheese, bitter marmalade and butter – on this special bread Martin makes for Siri. It has spelt flour in it, and dried apricots and hazelnuts. This is such a marvelous breakfast. Especially if you have been over-zealously detoxing the previous day.

Blame my irrational behavior on extreme hunger please. There is no other explanation. And then, if you are taking the month off from any kind of crap bread, sugar, red meat and are finding yourself starving at inconvenient times, check out the following recipe. My cousin gave it to me. It is perfect for a healthy afternoon pick-me-up. I made it for a cocktail party this weekend and then immediately made another batch for me. Lima beans have a bad rap so don’t let them put you off. Lima Bean Pate is an herbaceous and lemony, gorgeously green spread for little crostini (for the kids, as almost no bread is delicious enough for Delicious Detox) or for crisp vegetable delivery devices – like celery, red and orange pepper or cucumber.  Lima Bean Pate can be ready in about 20 minutes – 15 of which is hands off.  It is the perfect afternoon snack. Very nice.

Lima Bean Pate

(adapted from The Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook)

  • 2 c. water
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 c. frozen baby lima beans
  • 1/4 c. tightly packed fresh mint leaves (from about 6 stems), washed and dried
  • 1/4 c. tightly packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (from about 6 stems), washed and dried
  • 2 tbsp  lowfat buttermilk
  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 1/4 c. lemon juice (from 1-2 lemons)
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  1. In a small saucepan, bring the water and 2 teaspoons salt to a boil over high heat. Add the lima beans and let boil until just tender, about 12 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water for about 2 minutes to cool. Shake the colander several times to drain as much water from the beans as possible.
  2. Place the beans and the remaining ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process to a smooth, thick puree, about three 30-second-long pulses. Between pulses, push any of the mixture that clings to the side of the processor toward the blade with a rubber spatula before pulsing again.
  3. Season the pate to taste with salt and pepper and transfer it from the processor to a small bowl or plastic container. Cover tightly, and store in the refrigerator until ready to use, not more than 3 days.

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Date Night at Home

On Saturday night, we spent the evening in the kitchen setting beef drippings, butter, olive oil, crushed peppercorns, and brandy on fire. The flames were bright blue and flying right up over my head! Isn’t that kind of perfect for date night at home?

Staying in rather than going out might seem boring until you consider a few things. We didn’t need to make a reservation. Or search for parking. There was no need to find a babysitter. Or find something clean and reasonably stylish to wear. (This is sometimes a problem for me. Sigh.) There was no menu ennui. (Spare me yet another kale salad!) No meaningless chatter with a fawning waiter. At dinner, we could savor that last drop of wine since we were already home and didn’t have to drive anywhere. (It would have been criminal to cork even a tablespoon of that Williams and Selyem!) We could’ve eaten dinner in our pajamas! (We actually didn’t do this.) Best of all, we could cook whatever we wanted. And set it on fire!(As you might’ve guessed, for me, this is the fun part.)

I’m not a fan of steakhouses. Portions are ridiculously large, I loathe getting nickel and dimed on the sides, and they’re too rich anyway. I find the rituals of a steakhouse old fashioned and boring. To me, brandy, cigars and Frank Sinatra are for posers. However, there are times when I crave a perfectly seared and seasoned steak, charred almost to the point of being burnt yet still with a deeply rosy interior. I try to make lighter sides, still alluding to the steakhouse classics. The brandied pan sauce on the steak enriches the mashed potatoes. Sauteed mushrooms need nothing but a little shallot, butter and black pepper. The chard, edgy then sweet with garlic, chilies, and (fig) balsamic turns creamed spinach on its nose.

We always nibble on some very fancy cheese while we cook, something local or French. Something stinky. I know of a very good ginger-y cocktail (if you ask me I will send you the recipe!) that would be wonderful with cheese, but if you do get a really great bottle of wine, a cocktail is too much. If you drink mineral water while you cook, you won’t fall asleep right after dinner, which would be a shame on date night.

Somewhat traditional and very celebratory, this menu has played Valentine’s Day dinner often, sometimes birthday dinner.  Yes there is work involved, but it’s simple – no crazy mincing necessary. I barely batted my eyelashes at Martin and I got him to wash and trim the chard, a job I hate. It should have been me, as date night at home was my idea.

Date Night Dinner

  • Steak au Poivre with cream
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Sauteed Mushrooms – black trumpet are delicious and need no trimming
  • Wilted Swiss Chard with Balsamic ( I was given a bottle of Fig Balsamic by a dear friend and I am deeply grateful!)

I couldn’t take a picture of the food because you can’t let a hot meal cool on its carefully warmed plates and start snapping pictures in the middle of dinner on date night.  I had to settle for a photograph of a table set in anticipation and the empty wine bottle.

First, read through the whole recipe, then assemble all these ingredients as written, plus 3 sauté pans and a 3 quart saucepan. One person should do the steak and mushrooms; the other, the potatoes and chard. There should be 15 minutes of prepping the ingredients and under 20 to do the cooking.

Pepper Steak

  • (2) six ounce beef tenderloins, let them come to room temperature for an hour before starting
  • 1 1/2 tbsp black peppercorns, roughly cracked in a mortar and pestle
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2/3 cup brandy
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3/4 tsp salt

Mashed Potatoes

  • 3 medium sized Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut in half, and set into the 3 quart saucepan, completely covered in cold water
  • 1/2 cup milk + 4 tbsp butter in a Pyrex measuring cup or small saucepan
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sauteed Mushrooms

  • 1/2 lb black trumpet mushrooms
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 medium shallot, minced
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Wilted Chard

  • 1 bunch swiss chard, stalks removed, cut into 1″ strips
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed and minced
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • balsamic vinegar to finish (if you happen to have any fig balsamic, now would be a good time to break it out)

The poshest bottle of Pinot Noir you can get your hands on - poured into glasses so it opens up in time for dinner.

  1. Set the table. Light the candles. The plates will be hot so you may need to protect the table with a thick mat or trivet.
  2. Start by setting the saucepan of potatoes on high heat to boil. When they reach a boil, set the heat to medium and allow them to simmer. They should be done about 20minutes after they reach a boil.
  3. Press the crushed peppercorns into the steak firmly, top and bottom, with the heel of your palm. Sprinkle each side with a pinch of sea salt. Set aside.
  4. Carefully examine the mushrooms, looking for debris. We found a rather large dark piece of wood in ours! Trumpet mushrooms are difficult to wipe clean, so we quickly rinsed them in a colander and dried them with towels.
  5. Heat the oven to 200. Put two dinner plates on the rack to warm.
  6. You’ll be cooking the mushrooms and the beef simultaneously.
  7. Set two heavy saute pans over medium high heat for 3 or 4 minutes. Use the larger one for the mushrooms – they need a lot of space or they won’t crisp properly.
  8. In the mushroom pan, melt the butter until it stops foaming.
  9. In the steak pan, melt the butter with the olive oil, until the butter has stopped foaming.
  10. Add the mushrooms to their sauté pan and stir to coat with butter. Stir every minute or 2. Initially, they will weep a lot of liquid.
  11. While the mushrooms are cooking, add the steak to the other sauté pan. Set a timer for 3 minutes. The steaks should really sizzle, if they aren’t your pan isn’t hot enough. It’s a fine line between seared and burnt, so you want to pay close attention. It’s deeply satisfying to get it just right. After 3 minutes, carefully flip the meat, and set the timer for 3 more minutes. You want to get a good sear in that amount of time, no longer, to keep the interior pink.
  12. While the steaks are searing, the mushroom will have lost a lot of liquid, let it bubble away until it is gone, then raise the heat a little and add the shallots. Now that the liquid is gone, the mushrooms can brown and become deeply flavorful. When they start looking crisp, taste one and add sea salt and black pepper. They may be done before the steaks. It doesn’t matter. Put the sauté pan on the back burner while the steaks catch up.
  13. Now that the steaks are seared, you need to cook each side for 3 more minutes on medium heat. This will produce a deep pink (not red!) interior. After a total of 12 minutes, remove the steak from the sauté pan and carefully, without dripping all over the edges of the plate, move them to the warming plates in the oven.
  14. While you are finishing the steak and mushrooms, your partner should work on the chard and mashed potatoes.
  15. In the microwave in a pyrex measuring cup or in a small saucepan on the stove, heat the butter and milk until the butter has melted.
  16. Check the potatoes with a fork; they should be just falling apart. Drain in the colander and return to the saucepan. Add the hot milk and butter and mash with a potato masher or a wire whisk until smooth. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Put the saucepan lid on a place on a back burner until dinner is done, which will be very soon.
  17. The chard and the pan sauce will be completed at the same time.
  18. In a clean sauté pan, heat the 2 tbsp olive oil over medium high heat. Add the garlic and chili flakes. Just as the garlic turns golden, add the chard and toss as it settles down, wilting. Toss for a few minutes. Turn off the heat and season with sea salt and black pepper.
  19. As your partner finishes the chard, heat the brandy in the steak sauté pan with all the browned bits, any fallen-off peppercorns and pan juices. When the brandy is bubbling, light a long match, stand away from the pan, and light it. If you have never done this before, the flames can leap rather high – almost 2 feet in my case. It’s kind of exciting. Anyway after several seconds the flames will die down some – you can just blow them out very easily. With a wooden spoon scrape up all the brown pieces on the bottom of the pan. When all is bubbling nicely, add the cream. Let it simmer over medium-high heat until thickened, about 3 minutes.
  20. Remove the plates from the oven with mitts – they’ll be hot. Mashed potatoes are first, cozied up near the steak. Ladle some of the pan sauce over them. Don’t make a lake of it! You don’t want a messy looking plate. Put the mushrooms alongside the steak and the chard by the potatoes. Splash just a little balsamic over the chard. Inhale. Exhale. Sit down to dinner.
Oh. My. God. There are 20 steps!
Don’t let that deter you! This is really fun – I promise!

(I wonder if I am the only person who thinks that setting things on fire in the kitchen constitutes a romantic evening?…Martin seems to like it!)

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The (failed) Salad Redux

The holidays are over. It is raining listlessly. Through the window in my office I can see the looming black shape of the evergreen in the yard, the grey stick mass of the leafless maple tree and the leaden cocoon of the winter sky. In the living room, the Christmas tree is strung with a series of dusty, white, spider webs connecting the Santa Claus at the top to the light on the ceiling. Tree limbs droop with the weight of the ornaments and there are more and more needles on the carpet. (I’m taking the tree down tomorrow, I swear!) Outside, it is not particularly cold and certainly not warm, but it is soggy. Thick new moss grows on everything, greenly blanketing paths and the steps – even tree branches. What an excellent time of year to play around in the kitchen!

It was about this time last year that I wrote about grapefruit in salad. The winter weather must drive me to anything at all reminiscent of sunlight. Anyway, I made this salad over the holidays again and again and sent the recipe around to anyone who asked for it. (It’s a reworked and vastly improved version of the failed salad) I must have eaten it twenty times in the last month and I’m still not sick of it!

The candied walnuts were very last minute. There were none left at the grocery store (probably because I started a run on them!) so I had to find a recipe. I made the walnuts for the first time this Christmas Eve. Crisp, spicy and so one-more-handful-ish, I made a batch minutes before leaving for my aunt’s house: a sweet little extra Christmas gift. How perfectly handy –  to have a recipe like that.

The Salad

for 4-6 people

  • 2 bunches of watercress
  • a wedge of blue Castello or Cambozola, cold – to make cutting easier
  • a handful of candied walnuts (see recipe below)
  • 2 pink grapefruits or 3-4 blood oranges
  • 1 tbsp currants
  • 1 shallot – thinly sliced into rings
  • 2 tbsp Champagne vinegar
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  1. Combine 1 tbsp hot water and red vinegar in a very small bowl with 1 tbsp currants.
  2. In another very small bowl, toss champagne vinegar with the sliced shallot.
  3. Wash and dry the leaves of watercress and mound on a large platter.
  4. Cut the Blue Castello into small pieces, removing any rind, and strew over leaves.
  5. With a very sharp knife cut the top and bottom off the grapefruit. Cut off all the rind and pith. Over a medium sized bowl, carefully slice between the membranes to remove the fruit in sections, catching any juice and the fruit in the bowl.
  6. Arrange the sectioned grapefruit over the salad.
  7. Toss the walnuts over the top.
  8. Lift the shallots out of the vinegar carefully, reserving the vinegar for the dressing. Pulling the rings apart, scatter the shallots over the salad.
  9. Drain the currants, and toss over the salad.
  10. Add 1-2 tbsp grapefruit juice to the  small bowl with the champagne vinegar. Whisk in olive oil, 1/2 tsp sea salt, and a few grindings black pepper.  Dress the salad – you may not need all the dressing.
Candied Walnuts
(can be quadrupled!)
  • 1 cup large walnut pieces (mostly halves)
  • 2 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp kosher sea salt
  • several grindings of pepper
  • an optional pinch of cayenne (I liked it; my kids, not so much)
  1. Preheat the oven to 325.
  2. Toss all ingredients together in a medium sized bowl.
  3. Lightly spray a rimmed cookie sheet with vegetable oil.
  4. Spread the coated nuts over the cookie sheet.
  5. Toast for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.
  6. Remove from oven and cool stirring every few minutes so they don’t stick too badly to the pan.
You might think you’re mad at me when you see how the maple syrup and sugar seem welded to the cookie sheet. Don’t worry. Pour a cup or two of very hot or boiling water over it and in a few minutes it will wash right off.
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My late spring salad: Beet, Chèvre, Arugula & Pine Nuts

So this is it. This is the salad that I wait all spring to make. It’s the chioggia beets you really can’t find in the winter here in Seattle. They’re still only available in the farmer’s markets – the weather has been so cold. This salad’s not fancy. Really, the vibe is more kitchen sink than thoughtfully composed. The varied textures: earthy and sweetly roasted chioggia beets, greenly cooling cucumbers, the sliced shallots pinked up in vinegar, providing a gently persistent bite – that’s what grabs me. Not to mention peppery arugula plus peppered spicy chèvre. Dotted with warmly toasted pine-nuts – I adore this salad. In fact, although it serves four, I would happily eat the whole thing, on it’s own, and call it dinner. (to give you an idea of just how greedy I am, this recipe lushly fills a 15 inch platter)

Beet, Chèvre, Arugula, Pine Nut Salad - serves 4

  • 4 small chioggia beets
  • 4 handfuls arugula, washed and dried
  • 1 medium sized shallot, sliced thin
  • 2 ounces fresh chèvre – with mixed peppercorns
  • half a peeled and seeded English cucumber, sliced
  • 2 tbsp champagne vinegar
  • 4-6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbsp pine nuts, toasted in a skillet over medium heat for a few minutes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 400
  2. Trim the beets, cutting off both tails and leafy tops. Wrap them in aluminum foil and place them in a small baking dish. Roast in the oven for 1 1/2 – 2 hours. If you are appalled at putting such a small dish in the oven at such a high temperature for 2 hours, you could always roast a chicken to go with it – that would be lovely. (of course if you don’t actually feel like roasting a chicken and all you really want is the darn beet salad and actually not 2 whole hours from now but in, like, 1/2 an hour I suppose you could always steam them in a little vegetable steamer. 20-40 minutes of steaming depending on how big the beets are. It won’t be quite as good but it will still be pretty great.)
  3. While the beets are cooking, put the shallot slices into a small bowl with the champagne vinegar. Manipulate the slices with your fingers to separate the rings and to make sure that they become saturated with vinegar.
  4. When the beets are done, you’ll be able to push a fork into them. Don’t wait until they’re mushy and don’t take them out when they’re still crunchy. If you cook them early in the day they can sit on the counter until you are ready to peel them, slice them and put them in the salad. A cooked beet should NEVER see the inside of the fridge. They become horribly watery and mushy.
  5. Add 4 tbsp olive oil to the bowl with vinegar and shallots. Whisk with a fork and taste – it should be nicely balanced without aggressive acidity. Add 1/4 tsp sea salt and taste again. You may like up to 2 more tbsp of olive oil. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
  6. Peel the beets and slice them into 1/8ths.
  7. On a large platter, arrange a bed of arugula. Scatter the cucumbers and beets over the greens. Then crumble the chèvre over everything. Toss the pine nuts evenly over the top and finally dress lightly, you may not have to use all the dressing. Be sure to fish out all the shallots and include them – they add so much flavor and delicate color!
  8. Quickly get out your camera and take a picture before you eat the whole thing! I forgot to take a picture until it was nearly gone last time, as you can see:

So of course I had to make it again the next day!

(Sometimes I make a variation of this salad that includes roast asparagus – which may seem over-the-top and disorganized but I have to confess that I love it. Smoky toasted asparagus and smoky roasted beets – lovely. You can see I included tomatoes here – probably wouldn’t do that again. They weren’t offensive but they added nothing.)


 

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Spring green: Roast Asparagus Salad

I have been having an incredibly good time in my kitchen this week, inspired by the first sunny and (slightly) warm weather we have had here in Seattle since…September? Seattle is blooming and everything that has been brown and wet for so long is now green. (And wet. Sigh.) Still, the green is a huge improvement. Now I want to make green food.

First there was the riff on a dish of black rice, clams, aioli and cilantro that I had at Sitka and Spruce – except I made it with sear-roasted halibut. The cilantro made it a little bit green. I loved seeing it bright and fresh in the photo. The flavor with the lemon was pure sunshine. Here’s what it looked like:

My friend Christine thoughtfully brought over an Alsatian Riesling to drink with it and it was perfect, more so because I got to share it with a really good friend. As soon as I have a chance to make the halibut again, I’ll  take pictures and post the method. I want to show you how to make aioli.

Still, I wanted the food to be greener. So I made up this very very green salad – toying with a dressing from Deborah Madison, spring asparagus, arugula, goat cheese and toasted pine nuts. Here it is:

So, there’s the bitter asparagus and the even bitterer arugula. But the asparagus’ pungency is tempered by it’s bout with the broiler. The flavor becomes rounded, richer, a little nutty. The goat cheese was something leftover from the dinner party, the sort with colored peppercorns. Martin toasted the pinenuts – for warmth and crunch. Then there’s the dressing, borrowed from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I skipped a couple of things – the big one being the capers. Here’s what Nora Ephron says about capers:

Any dish that tastes good with capers in it tastes even better with capers not in it.

I agree 100% and I feel validated in my opinion because Nora Ephron said it first.

Anyway, the dressing. I made it for this cabbage and arugula slaw that I was sure would be wonderful (it wasn’t) but the dressing had potential. (without the capers!) Garlic, salt, fennel seed and black peppercorns are mashed together with a mortar and pestle and then left to macerate with olive oil, shallots and lemon rind. It’s complex. Fire from the garlic and peppercorns, high spring notes of fennel and lemon and the edge-y richness of sliced shallots and champagne vinegar. Without the capers, it’s pretty fantastic. This is an extremely green, salad tour de force. I think after this cold and gloomy winter what I needed was a giant hit of chlorophyll.

With the salad, we made the grilled shrimp with bread crumbs from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking that I wrote about last summer and the white bean and basil puree that I wrote about when I first started writing Notes on Dinner.  And here is how to make the green salad:

Asparagus Salad with Arugula, Goat Cheese and Pine Nuts – serves 4

  • 1 bunch of asparagus, rinsed, ends snapped off
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • sea salt and pepper
  • 4 generous handfuls of arugula, washed and dried
  • 1 ounce goat cheese – with peppercorns, if you like that sort of thing, crumbled
  • 2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted in a small dry skillet over medium heat until glossy and golden

The Dressing (for this you will need a mortar and pestle)

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1/4 tsp peppercorns
  • 1/2 tsp dry tarragon
  • 1/4 cup parsley, minced and divided
  • 1 shallot, thinly sliced
  • 1 zest of a lemon – finely grated with a microplane
  • 1/3 cup olive oil

Preheat the broiler – set it to high.

In the mortar and pestle, mash the garlic, sea salt, fennel seeds, peppercorns, tarragon and 2 tbsp of the minced parsley until you have a smooth paste.

Stir in the lemon zest, shallots, the rest of the parsley and olive oil and leave to macerate for 1/2 an hour.

While the salad dressing is resting, arrange the arugula on a large platter.

Then toss the asparagus with 2 tbsp olive, 1/2 tsp sea salt and several grindings of black pepper on a rimmed sheet pan. It should be in one layer. Broil 4 inches from the heat until bubbling; toasted but still crisp/tender. My asparagus was just under 1/2″ in diameter and this took about 2 minutes per side – a total of 4 minutes.

Remove the asparagus from the pan and arrange while still hot, over the arugula.

Strew the crumbled goat cheese and pine nuts over everything.

Add the champagne vinegar to the dressing and taste. Does it need more salt?

Ladle the dressing over the salad – depending on how much asparagus and arugula you have, you may not need all of it.

So I have this photo of the dinner and I’m not crazy about it. I don’t like to make excuses when I think something is lame; as my aunt says: you have to feign nonchalance in these situations. But this is sort of funny. My boys were so desperate to get their hands on this dinner (they both love Ms. Hazan’s juicy and crisp shrimp) that when I wanted to stop for less than sixty seconds to take the picture, they both started to cry! So I stopped messing about and served dinner. Everyone was happy. Here’s the photo:
It could have been a lot prettier but seriously, it was totally delicious.

 

 

 

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Like spring: Royal Trumpets, Asparagus and New Potatoes

I was pushing the cart around the vast islands of produce at the grocery store the other day, knowing I would incite a full scale revolt if I brought any more kale into the house. Sometimes it is overwhelming, wanting to try something new and having no idea what it should be – especially towards the end of winter. There just aren’t a lot of choices in early spring in the PNW.  Anyway, staring out over the vast expertly displayed mountains of mostly green crinkly leaves (those winter stalwarts—kale, chard, escarole), there beyond that, the mushroom display. Chanterelles!?! Love them. Nope. That’s fall. Then I saw these:

Royal Trumpet Mushrooms

 

Hmm. They look a little like this Swedish type called Karljohan which I have always wanted to try. Royal trumpet mushrooms are handsome. Creamy large fungi clustered with smaller, sometimes tiny, versions of themselves, they sport a broad cappuccino colored cap. Royal trumpets look like storybook mushrooms. Suddenly, I imagined them cut in rough pieces, their edges sizzling and caramelizing in butter. The fresh loamy scent transformed, intensified, browned and buttery, and scattered with crystals of seasalt and scented with black pepper. I put half a pound in a paper bag and trolled on. On the opposite bank were slim green spears of asparagus. So spring-ish! Popped them in the cart. On the other side of the large wooden crate, a heap of small purple plastic mesh bags of tiny new potatoes, the largest potato no bigger than those shooter sized marbles. Yes. Done.

The thing is, I know none of these vegetables are seasonal here in Seattle – not at this time, in March, except maybe the potatoes. Those I think were from Oregon. But I didn’t care. Not this week. I am so ready for spring!

Royal Trumpets, Asparagus and New Potatoes

  • 1/2 lb Royal Trumpet Mushrooms, wiped clean and cut into 3/4″ pieces
  • 1/2 lb Asparagus, thin as pencils, snapped into 1 1/2″ lengths
  • 1/2 lb tiny potatoes, peeled
  • 1 1/2 tbsp butter
  • 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Here’s where I had trouble deciding whether or not to include this recipe at Notes on Dinner. I have this incredible gadget that my mother-in-law brought me from Sweden. Can you guess what it is?

This is a Swedish potato peeler although if you guessed a salad spinner you wouldn’t have been far wrong. It does have another basket that fits inside and it can dry lettuces too. I really hate to write about specialized equipment and it does seem especially unfair given that these potato peelers are nearly impossible to buy outside of Sweden, or in the U.S. anyway. You put the potatoes in the bowl, then fill the bowl with water and turn the handle quickly. The centrifugal force flings the potatoes against the sides and the tiny sharp ridges sand away the delicate skins of small potatoes. The water washes their grubby little skins away.

It is only 1/2 a pound of potatoes. So…

  1. Put the potatoes in a saucepan and cover them with water. Heat until boiling then add 1 tsp sea salt. Simmer until just done. If the potatoes are really quite small this could take no more than 10 minutes. Start checking at 8 though, just to be safe. When the potatoes are done drain them, and set aside.
  2. In a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat, melt the butter with the olive oil.
  3. Add the mushroom pieces and the potatoes, stirring every minute or two until they are light golden brown all over.
  4. Add the asparagus and continue to stir until it is crisp-tender and also, if you look carefully, lightly browned.
  5. Add sea salt and black pepper until it tastes delicious. (I would start with 1/2 tsp of salt and add 1/8 tsp increments until it is just right for you.)

I served this with that Tom Douglas fish recipe I wrote about months ago. This time I used cod, though, which was really so much better than the halibut I used last time. The finished recipe has this mild heat and lemony edge which I loved alongside those nutty forest-y mushrooms and potatoes. The parsley salad was the icing on the cake, so to speak. If you are curious, my kids loved this dinner. One of the very best. (They did, however, skip the parsley salad.)

 

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Fear of Frying: Kabocha Squash Tempura

A few weeks ago, I consumed a completely embarrassing amount of the most crisp, succulent kabocha squash tempura at the home of some really lovely people who I don’t happen to know very well and who are excellent cooks. (I felt SO lucky to be included!) We were standing around in their kitchen sipping one of those apricot-floral half dry German wines and smacking on the crisp golden edges of this squash which had been finished with the light crunch of sea salt. I was utterly gluttonous – we all were. Afterwards we watched as they cleaned and cut geoduck into satiny sashimi. If you have never seen a geoduck at all, seeing one being cleaned will be quite a surprise for you – I’m not kidding! I was delighted to eat geoduck sashimi but I will gladly leave the prep to someone else. The tempura, however, inspired me to address my deep rooted fear of frying things at home.

It’s not that I’m afraid I’ll set the kitchen on fire and I’m fine with the clean-up. I do own the kind of thermometer that can go in searingly hot fat. And I’m not afraid of cooking with fat for health reasons – once or twice a year making french fries, who cares?

Here’s what it is: I don’t want to own a deep fat fryer (too big and messy and they only do that one thing) and I hate the idea of having to fiddle around with the stove the whole time to get the heat right. I imagine I would be irritated if the oil starts to smoke too much or if the batter is too heavy or if the oil is not hot enough. And if the food comes out leaden and greasy? – I would hate that. Or if we’re talking fried chicken, what if the outside is golden and crisp while the inside remains scarily raw? Yuck.

Fried food must be crisp, golden, light – nothing short of perfect – the first time out or I don’t want to have anything to do with it. There’s no rescuing a failure in frying. Yet, despite all my nervous notions, I decided to try to make tempura anyway. The memory of that delicious tempura drove me to it.

Kabocha has a very tough exterior

The most difficult thing was slicing the kabocha squash which has an extremely beautiful but leathery skin. In the interest of keeping it very simple and because our hosts at the dinner party used it, I decided to buy a box of tempura mix – just add water and stir – so the batter was a no-brainer. (hey, what kind of cooking blog is this anyway?) Our hosts shallow fried the tempura, so I did too. Not a big deal. Very simple. The clean-up was a breeze.

Guess what? Making tempura was easy! Nothing to quail over at all.

Kabocha Tempura

  • 1 Kabocha squash
  • 1 box tempura mix
  • sea salt
  • canola oil for frying


With the squash set on a stable cutting board, slice down through the center firmly and carefully. I cut right down through the stem. Once you manage to slice through the exterior, you can wedge the blade back and forth a bit and gently force the halves apart.

With a soup spoon, scrape out the seeds and guts of the squash which are very similar to a pumpkin.

Sliced and peeled kabocha

Cut the halves into slices 3/8″ thick, then peel off the skin. Chill the squash in the refrigerator

Prepare the tempura mix, following the instructions on the box. I found I had to thin mine quite a bit with water. It should be thinner than pancake batter, just barely clinging to the squash.

Film a 10″ heavy bottomed saute pan with a 1/4″ of canola oil and heat until shimmering over medium high heat. If the oil starts to smoke, remove from heat until smoking subsides.

Crisp and almost done

Dip 3-4 slices of squash into the tempura batter. CAREFULLY lay them in the hot oil with tongs. The squash should take 3 minutes per side. You can check as soon as the batter seems to set – it should be barely golden when finished. Flip when the underside is golden and continue to fry for another 3 minutes.

When both sides are golden, remove the tempura to a platter lined with paper towels and sprinkle with sea salt.



These are very fine with cocktails.

I think of this shallow fried tempura as the gateway project to a whole world of deep fried foods that until now have seemed unattainable to me because of my fear and impatience. Look out – fried chicken and samosas are just around the corner!

If you are interested, here is a link showing how to clean a geoduck:

How To Clean a Geoduck

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Impress your friends: Popovers

Last night I was having dinner with some accomplished, double degree, articulate, well read, savvy, thoughtful, funny women who confessed to me that popovers, mere popovers, might be their undoing in the kitchen. “Too difficult. Aren’t they deep fried?” one said when I tried to describe how easy they are. “You must cook all the time.” (Okay – I do cook all the time – but that is so beside the point.)

I totally get it. How do you get them to puff up like that?  Is it yeast?  Are they deep fried?  They must be terribly unhealthy. No, no and no.

I guess I should have covered popovers before I covered Dutch Babies and Toad-in-the-Hole. You see Popovers are basic. SO easy. They fill in the gap of an otherwise boring meal. Lentil soup becomes quite sophisticated with a popover cozied up alongside. Popovers are a quick and easy answer to a hot dinner roll. They give you an excuse, should you be looking for one, to use honey or jam as a condiment at the dinner table. When I tell you the recipe you won’t believe how easy they are. Everyone will think you’re a culinary genius.

Check it out:

Popovers

makes 12

5 minutes to mix up, 35 minutes in the oven.

  • 1 1/4 c milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp melted butter (put it in a microwave safe bowl and heat for 30 seconds)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
  2. Spray a 12 muffin tin or a popover pan thoroughly with canola oil. You want your popovers to fall easily from the pan.
  3. In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk the milk and eggs together. Stir in the melted butter. Set aside.
  4. In a medium sized bowl, whisk the flour and salt.
  5. Pour the milk, eggs and butter mixture into the flour and salt. Whisk until fully incorporated; allow a few lumps though. Don’t be too thorough.
  6. Using a ladle, divide the batter equally between the muffin cups. They will be about half full.
  7. Bake for 15 minutes and then turn down the heat to 350 F and bake for another 20 minutes. DO NOT PEEK until the last 5 minutes. The popovers should be nicely browned and crisp.
  8. When they are done, turn them out onto a wire rack and pierce them a little bit with a sharp knife to let the steam out. (so they stay crisp)

Even though I have made popovers many times, I am still irrationally surprised at how they puff. It’s a small miracle and I have no idea what the science is behind it. And that is just fine with me.

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