Chez Panisse-Inspired Strawberry Salad

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My bucket list in life vacillates from year to year. Things like hot air ballooning fall off as I age and become more protective of my life. Things like “visit Ibiza” turn into “visit the South of France” as my tastes evolve from the love of nightlife to a more refined love of charming small towns and foreign flora. But one thing that has remained on my list for decades is Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, California restaurant owned and operated by sublimely seasonal chef Alice Waters. As far as chefs go, her style of cooking fresh, simple and delicious food from seasonally available, local sources has always matched my palate’s deepest hankerings for the good, the true and the natural.

A week ago, I was able to check Chez Panisse off my list when the Cute Gardener and I stopped in for lunch on a dappled sunny afternoon. Seated upstairs in the wooden, arts-and-crafts movement dining room, we enjoyed a taste of the famous roast chicken, a duck confit, fried green onions, smoky roasted tomato soup and a nectarine galette with the brownest, crispest crust I’ve had yet. But one small dish, a starter salad dressed in tomato vinaigrette was the biggest source of inspiration for me. It made me want to stretch my own capabilities from my normal salad dressing fare at home, which typically consists of an emulsion of shallots, garlic, lemon juice, vinegar and oil. It made me want to stretch my creativity.

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This morning our garden was full of growth so I decided to create something new with Waters’ philosophy in mind. I took what was fresh and available: avocado, purslane leaves, Asian greens, green grapes and strawberries. Then as the greens dried from a quick wash, I looked around in my pantry to see what might make an unusual dressing. A stray bit of goat cheese caught my eye and I decided to make a sweet summer dressing using the strawberries in a puree. To the puree of cheese and berry, I added lemon juice and olive oil and voila! I had a new vinaigrette, silky smooth and sweet with just a bit of tang.

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The unctuous creaminess of the dressing was calling out for avocado. And all that was missing was some texture so I added sunflower seed, whole grapes and chopped strawberries for variation on top of the greens. The purslane leaves, who many ignore as a mere garden weed, made for a beautiful garnish but also a nice dose of Omega 3s.

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As I ate my salad, it felt good to know that very little labor or resources had been drained in the making of this dish nor were there any pesky chemicals or genetic modifications to my fruits and veggies. Best of all, the ingredients had come from my own home—both backyard and pantry, in the spirit of grow your own.

Return to Jade Mountain

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Although I found Venice Beach a bit pretentious as a living environment (think earthen rich hippies touting their extreme health and spirituality who are first to run for the bathroom door, compact mirror and rolled twenty dollar bill in hand, when a vat of cocaine is whipped out at a party), I definitely miss the health food stores and restaurants. In a two-block radius, there were more choices in organic cold pressed juices, fresh nut milks, and creative, raw food options than I had seen prior or since.

One of my favorite places was a communal grocery store and deli, which sold fare by locals. This included vats of pickles, cured meats, cheeses, and a wicked sardine sandwich on oiled crusty bread that I still crave. But my most frequent purchase there was the Jade Mountain smoothie. It was a clear plastic cup filled with a gargantuan pile of algae-green, icy, slush that tasted (and smelled) like standing under a waterfall after a day of wicked hiking. It also gave me a boost that lasted hours–not the seedy kind that surges falsely through you from prescription or illicit drugs, but the kind that bubbles through your every cell, wakening the body’s electric flow.

I have finally managed, after a few years worth of attempts, to recreate something in my home kitchen that comes close in both taste and feel.

Jade Mountain 2.0

1 frozen pear
1 tsp. moringa leaf powder
1 tsp. maca powder
1 tsp. bee pollen
½ in. slice ginger
1 c. filtered water

Combine all in a NutriBullet and blast away. Sprinkle some extra bee pollen on top to make it pretty!

The Last Tomatoes of Summer

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In his famous poem, Ode to the Tomatoes, Pablo Neruda describes summer as a time when “The street filled with tomatoes, midday, summer, light is halved like a tomato, its juice runs through the streets.”

The juice certainly runs through our household as the Cute Gardener cultivates various breeds. It is a time when whole buckets full are brought in from the garden and Saturday mornings teem with the scent of a simmering pot stuffed to the brim. Hours later the reduced, seething lot will be pressed through a sieve into jars that will last us throughout the year as we liven pasta sauces and pressure cooker braises of hearty pork and beef. Lambs shank will soften for musky one-pot meals and chicken breasts will turn Mediterranean swimming in bright red stews spiked with black olives and herbs.

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We spend many warm season noontimes in the vein of Neruda where “…unabated, the tomato invades the kitchen, it enters at lunchtime, takes its ease on countertops, among glasses, butter dishes, blue saltcellars. It sheds its own light, benign majesty.”

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This majesty comes in the form of simple dishes where the tomato is star, untainted by complicated preparation but extolled for its purity. We dice cucumbers and toss them with diced, plump Cherokee tomatoes, feta and olive oil for light salads. Or sliver yellow grape tomatoes with bits of avocado, panko breadcrumbs and arugula. Or slice bulging marzanos for Swiss cheese and rye sandwiches, adorned with nothing but a few flakes of Maldon salt.

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But my favorite, the sun dappled heirloom arrives fat and orange with the innards a world unto itself. Cut in half, it reveals a universal starburst of veins that Neruda’s description merrily befits …”the tomato, star of earth, recurrent and fertile star, displays its convolutions, its canals, its remarkable amplitude and abundance, no pit, no husk, no leaves or thorns, the tomato offers its gift of fiery color and cool completeness.”

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These vivid cross sections make for excellent layers of a dressed down quesadilla, juicy slabs atop a spare bed of cheese, swathed within a thick and fluffy tortilla.

And when we’ve exhausted all options there is nothing better than chopping up the remains of the harvest into grand tubs of fresh salsa to be enjoyed, daylong, with crisp triangles of white corn chips.

The Last Strawberries of Summer

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In our household, it is my job to take care of the strawberries every summer. So for about a month spanning from April to June, I spend my mornings at the crack of dawn stepping through the strawberry bushes that swarm the backyard planter. I peer beneath leaves for the plump, ripe fruit and pick whole bins full, constantly being frightened by the leaping grasshoppers that also call the plants home. I wash and de-stem and load them into Ziploc bags for the freezer after eating the finest specimens for breakfast plain or on top of yogurt and hearty grains. The frozen bags become fuel for morning smoothies that last long into the warmest days. Come August, I start hankering for a different way to utilize the last berries—the runts and rejects, frozen stiff into bricks.

This year I remembered a visit I had to my friend Elizabeth’s Venice Beach bungalow last year. She was breezy and in love with a German baker who had just flown back to Europe after a month spent in the throes of love on the beach where they had nested in her seaside home cooking and dancing. The last remnants of his presence were seen in a small crystal jar of refrigerator jam he had made before his departure. The sweet strawberry concoction was creamy with the scent of vanilla and we had shared it on fluffy white biscuits with our tea.

So, duly inspired, I found a Cook’s Magazine version of the refrigerator jam and made it for myself this year with the last remnants of my garden bounty. It was the perfect sized amount to savor for a week upon toast as I said goodbye to the sweet fruit until they sprout again.

Strawberry Refrigerator Jam

1-1/2 pounds of strawberries, hulled and cut into ½ inch pieces (3 cups)
1 c. sugar
3 tbls. lemon juice

  1. Place metal spoon in freezer to chill. Combine strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice in large saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to medium. Mash fruit with potato masher until fruit is mostly broken down. Simmer vigorously until fruit mixture thickens and spatula leaves trail that does not fill immediately, 15-20 minutes.
  2. To test for proper thickness, remove saucepan from heat. Dip chilled spoon into jam and allow jam to run off spoon; jam should slowly fall off spoon in one thickened clump. If jam is runny, return to medium heat and simmer for 2 to 4 minutes before retesting. Transfer jam to jar and let cool completely. Cover with tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.

The Fleeting Days of Corn

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Tiny rows that look like pale yellow baby teeth greeted me as I carefully shucked the corn brought in from the back yard a little over a week ago. This year’s harvest was bountiful—having for the most part escaped the eager teeth of gopher and rat—nearly twenty stalks lay at my feet in the backyard. I yanked the bushy tuft of reddish hair atop each ear and quickly yanked the green husk down to reveal the gorgeous crispness inside. One after another into the waiting bucket before the Cute Gardener would tenderly slice the kernels from the cob in the kitchen—half remaining for a summer salad lunch and the other half to be frozen for later in the year when we might be tweaked by particular cravings of the long lost summer. Before emptying the bucket, I snatched an ear and bit into its crisply sweet top, typewriter-chewing my way around its circumference in the way that a garden pest might. It was too irresistible not to try a piece of the vegetable raw, fresh from the garden and at its optimal best.

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As we enjoyed our salads later, naked and spent cobs simmered on the stove in the first of what would be hours toward making a concentrated corn stock verging on syrup for experiments in the future. Would we try it out in a loose corn bread, whip it into a soufflé of some sort or use it as a base for chowder? We would decide later. For now, in our bowls a tumble of lukewarm kernels were playing nice with a casual toss of minisculely-diced avocado, cucumber, and basil chiffonade and the slightest drizzle of oil. Just enough to coat all the ingredients but not too much lest the corn not be the star of the show—a show that is so fleetingly seasonal that it offers one or two weeks of crop at the most, something to be savored and enjoyed in those lucky years when the moles in their bunkers and holes decide to share with us humans who have so painstakingly grown the wares.

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Experiments in modern day sautéed pork succotash ensued for dinner followed by another fresh luncheon salad tumbled with tomato but I fear our supply is now running low. I can only see only three spindly stalks from my office window bending in the heat like taffy, tired from bearing the brunt of such abundance.

Nobody Does It Better Berry Crumble

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Nobody does it better
Makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as you
Baby, you’re the best
-Carly Simon

This time of year as temperatures rise over 90 degrees and our Saturday morning hikes are accompanied by mild cursing beneath our winded uphill breaths, there are exquisite, juicy rewards waiting for us at the end of the day. In the afternoon, after the sun has done its plumping of all the glories in our garden, I go into the backyard to pick strawberries and the Cute Gardener heads to the side of the house where berry brambles dance along the wooden fence. There, he chooses the fattest purple boysenberries, (or blackberries or raspberries on years when they are also abundant) bountiful and ripe, for an after dinner crumble that wins the prize as my all time favorite dessert.

Sure, there are dark chocolate ganaches in five star restaurants that make me quiver and butterscotch pot de crèmes always on menus to tantalize my tongue. Of course, there are also foie gras candy bars in indulgent Las Vegas supper clubs and tiny little macarons in rose, pistachio or Earl Grey flavors in Beverly Hills bakeries that never fail to call my name. But there is simply nothing more sublime than a simple berry crumble made in our kitchen by my man with the green thumb.

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The CG has perfected the crumble, which differs from pies, tarts and cobblers in its very design. First, nothing more than a perfect pile of boysenberries mixed with a minimal amount of sugar, cornstarch and a zing of squeezed lemon is placed into a ramekin. Then a nice little dough beret of ground peanuts, pecans and brown sugar is made to place on top, that when baked turns into a crunchy, chewy crust. After a torturous hour or so of waiting for the crumble to cool, we dive in with two spoons and enjoy the decidedly peanut butter and jelly like goodness as warm berries pop in the mouth, swimming in a tart syrup that induces merriment.

With so many berries we are oftentimes prone to enjoy a crumble two nights in a row. It is a shame to freeze them, which we have to do in order to preserve the large harvest, so we feel perfectly validated in having more than our normal share of dessert during this seasonal period. I will be sad to see them go in another few weeks.

The Fried Squashes of June

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This time every year the Cute Gardener and I struggle to use the last few butternut squashes that remain from the bountiful Fall harvest. By now we’ve exhausted our mental inventories of dishes like roasted butternut, butternut gratin, butternut pasta, mashed butternut instead of potatoes, butternut cream soups and smooth butternut purees, and diced butternut chunks in everything from pilafs to lentils. We have also used the best of the bunch and are left with the tiny runts, the scrawny, skinny long ones and the discolored strays that are more diluted in flavor than is normal. It is only natural that we would resort to the oldest trick in the book that makes any food taste good. The CG breaks out a huge pot and his oil and deep-fries a batch up for us. Paired with some local tamales from the Latino masa maker in our neighborhood, fresh cabbage from the garden and diced avocados from the backyard tree, the fried butternut is a sweet and crunchy natural adornment that combines sweet with savory. Even for a girl like me, who mostly eschews fried food in lieu of healthier options, it is hard to resist the combination of sweet squashes and an expertly blended fry coating that is mixed with care and creativity.

Which brings me to mention another specialty recently discovered this month suddenly awash with fried squash.

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Every time the CG and I travel to the desert to see my family, we take the opportunity to eat dim sum in Monterey Park. This past weekend while habitually betting on a new place Mama Lu’s, we stumbled upon a dish called Fried Seaweed Pumpkin. With memories of fried butternut fresh in mind, I ordered the dish. At first I was certain the pumpkin would be wrapped in seaweed as a salty coating and then fried. What we received instead was a plate towering with plump pieces of rich, dense fried kabocha squash—the Asian gourd that is like a cross between pumpkin and butternut. It also has a rind that looks very much like seaweed so it’s no surprise those creative Chinese would imaginatively instead of literally name this dish. I loved it, although it was so filling that I could only down three pieces with the rest of the already plentiful dim sum items we had ordered. I took the rest home with me and although the fry coating had wilted in the fridge overnight, it crisped immediately back up after spending five minutes in a 360-degree toaster oven. The kabocha was even better the next day dipped sparingly into dark mushroom soy sauce.

Forget the old saying, “When in doubt throw it out.” My new motto is, “When vegetables threaten to go dry, all you need is a quick flash fry!”

The Awesome Alchemical Avocado

IMG_9146Our avocado tree is flush with fruit this November!

The Cute Gardener and I have been talking recently about the word “awesome”—something that has become completely overused and diffused in contemporary society. We, as well as the rest of the human population, seem prone to give everything from the latest episode of Gotham to the morning drops of dew on a leaf to a brand new pair of shoes that moniker. David Sedaris has joked that if anyone in his presence says the word awesome, they immediately owe him a dollar towards the proverbial tip jar. There was a great TED Talk by comedian Jill Shargaa on this topic recently called “Let’s put the awe back in awesome.” In it, she says, “When you use the word awesome to describe the most mundane of things, you’re taking away the very power of the word. So in other words, if you have everything, you value nothing. There’s no dynamic, there’s no highs or lows, if everything is awesome.”

One aspect of my life where I have completely overused this word is with food. The butterscotch pot de crème at Gjelina is awesome. The lamb neck at Bestia is too. But every pork belly that I have met in the past year is not, even though I have most likely gushed that word out after each forkful being the pork whore that I am.

The very definition of awesome is “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear; causing or inducing awe.”

The one food that instantly comes to mind for me that fits this definition is the avocado. I have an overwhelming feeling of reverence for it because there is nothing quite like it—it stands alone in the fruit world as its own breed. Rough leathery skin surrounding smooth, oily and edible flesh and a large stone is not exactly what we think of when we hear the word fruit. Yet there it sits classified in a sea of sweet or juicy things on its own in the lone wolf color of green that for its genus sisters and brothers typically denotes “unripe.”

The “admiration” part of the avocado comes when it is mashed and used for its texture, which again, defies traditional classification because it is not quite cream, not quite butter, not quite pulp and not quite puree, but a silky unmistakable combination of all four. Without this unique and discernable texture, the world may never have known the fantastical deliciousness of guacamole.

IMG_9144But the truly “inducing awe” aspect of the avocado comes when it is used in a way that seems to completely go against its grain, as an additive in smoothies. There is something magical that occurs when an avocado is whipped with cold ingredients that completely mystifies. It turns everything into an ambrosial form of ice cream that is lusciously whipped yet densely creamy which lacks the customary avocado taste yet maintains its undertones of sumptuous richness. Since discovering this, I have gone completely smoothie crazy. My latest favorite recipe below is just the tip of the iceberg in this avocado awesomeness.

PEPPERMINT CHOCOLATE AVOCADO SMOOTHIE

1 cup almond milk
½ frozen banana
¼ avocado
2 tablespoons Ovaltine or cocoa powder
1 teaspoon organic maca powder
4 mint leaves
Bee pollen to sprinkle on top

Throw everything in a Nutribullet or other type of blender for 20 seconds and voila!

 

 

 

 

My Fervid Fig Fetish

IMG_8414 I recently watched the 2012 film The Fruit Hunters which thrillingly documents exotic fruit fanatics and people who are obsessed with planting and growing fruits internationally. The opening scene made me realize how much I can clump myself into this population as the fruit porn montage of luscious cross sections of pears and glorious globes of dew dripping cherries and perfect plump ovals of loquats and grapes had me transfixed to the scene like a twisted fetishist. I blush to admit that just the other day the Cute Gardener had to remind me under his breath in the outdoor aisles of the garden center that I couldn’t just forage the grapefruit on the ground underneath the potted tree that was for sale of the same name. Still earlier I scoured a Granada Hills hike hoping to find citrus in the orchards that weren’t already brown with rot. I’m addicted to fruit like others are to sex.

I only use the sexual metaphor because it is an obvious one. From the Garden of Eden to the liquid-stoked orgies of Dionysis, fruit has been matched up with risk, pleasure, rebellion and sin for centuries and what could be more taboo and sexy than that? Not to mention the way fruit looks as it blooms from the copulation of pollination into a fleshy and juicy adult. In fact, my first memory of eating fruit is a highly sensuous one.

I don’t recall the geographic location I was at nor do I recall who I was with, and I know I was only somewhere near six years old, as I sat in some shady lawn in someone’s front yard and bit into a ripened purple fig. And just like that bittersweet moment of first puppy love or that stomach ache feeling of the first time we are physically attracted to another human being, the butterflies in my guts took flight leaving me halfway filled with anxiety and halfway filled with a pure and astounding bliss. There must have been a tree close by because I have distinct and visceral visions of plucking more and more off of the grass and stuffing my face with glee.

IMG_8415To this day the fig holds its special reign in my heart as my “first” affair with fruit. I have never bought a fig in the market in all these years. Instead, throughout my life, I have managed to seek out kind friends and neighbors with an overabundance of figs in the summer who gladly donate their overages to my delight. I tend to seek out trees close by and stalk them until they dump their delicious fare onto public spaces of ground. I am a self-proclaimed charity case for any and all fig donors in my environment and no amounts are too big for me.

I was recently granted a beautiful bounty of green figs by a friend who remarked over tapas one night at the sumptuous Racion in Pasadena that her tree was currently in burst. The CG and I ended up following her home after our meal to gratefully receive a bag of the fruits. One was down my throat before we even arrived home. The rest were scattered out over the next 48 hours into a series of my meals as I devoured them heartily.

They were diced into chunks and sprinkled on top of coconut yogurt and Armenian sesame bread and rolled up like a lavosh for breakfast. They were halved and sprinkled with feta and drizzled with honey for lunch. They were sliced in half and stuffed with a hunk of Parmesan and splashed with balsamic vinegar for an afternoon snack. And finally, they were gobbled down with tea (which the CG thinks figs actually taste like) first thing in the morning.

It was a fast and fleeting two days that, like all illicit affairs, still leave me a tad guilty at my loss of control as well as secretly pleased with my ability to indulge in those times when it is absolutely worth it.

Wintry Radish with French Butter

IMG_7447Until I tried French butter I thought butter existed only to melt on bread, drizzle over popcorn, or massage into pastries and sweet things. I was never a straight butter eater, nor have I ever slathered a ham sandwich with it, and I even eschew it while cooking for my much-preferred olive oil. Little did I know that it could actually be something worthy enough to star on its own, or licked straight from a knife tip into a parade of four simultaneous salty and creamy experiences one after the other in a period of five seconds on the tongue.

There’s a reason French do butter better – the biggest being that their cream is  cultured prior to churning giving it a slightly tart underlying funk similar to that which makes crème fraiche tower over sour cream in the taste department. They also feed their cows very well, especially in the Normandy area where farm cow milk is known for its very high butterfat content.

And only a people known for their love of stinky, rich and decadent foods would elevate the status of a mere fat such as butter to a perfectly good food item in its most bare form.

I first ran into a description of French butter’s charm while reading a recipe in which Dorie Greenspan was describing a special sandwich she used to make for her husband every year. The sandwich consisted of a slab of cold French butter, seasonal black truffles and salt between two slices of soft white bread – the simplicity of which had my mouth smarting dangerously along with a hunger for this odd French butter. The sandwich was like a Hemingway novel – concise, easy, made up of three plain parts but together, a masterpiece.

Then I heard someone talk about how cold butter goes well with radishes.

The idea of pushing a smudge of cold and perfect butter on icy cool radishes like some Tolstoy heroine might do with good vodka late at night was highly appealing to me. It not only titillated my literary heart with its pure elegance and over the top regality but it gave me an excuse to ask the Cute Gardener to dig up the three bulbous French breakfast radishes currently growing in the garden as a precursor to a meal.

I stumbled upon some French butter at the Cheese Store of Silverlake and snapped it up for a whopping eight bucks. I trimmed the radishes and then sliced them into ¾ inch coins and then placed them in a bowl of ice water while the butter softened on the counter. When it was ready, I dried the radishes and dusted them with sea salt. Then we went about eating them with the butter and I learned that French butter is miles above the norm.

IMG_7454Because radishes with butter is most likely to be a once a year indulgence, we decided to have an equally indulgent dinner of accompanying cheeses and wine.