Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I'm a Book (Well, Part of One)

There was a surprise by my doorstep yesterday -- my very own copy of Greenwood Press' spanking new reference book The Business of Food.

I was one of many contributors to this encyclopedia to the food and drink industries. I wrote entries on pickles, Tabasco sauce, diners, cooking schools, Frieda's Produce, Trader Joe's, cafeterias, diet foods and the business of food on the web. The choice of topics was based on what was still available when I joined the project and my own rather wide range of interest. In all I estimate I wrote about 12,000 words. (Actually, I probably wrote more than that. The first drafts of all the entries were longer than their allotted word counts and had to be edited down, sometimes drastically.)

It was a great experience starting with the research, which I truly enjoyed; walking around with the different themes, organizational approaches and the like percolating in my head; coming to clarity to what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it to this particular audience, and then finally the writing, which was an involving and rewarding process.

One very pleasant surprise to me was the author of the foreword -- Marion Nestle, the author of Food Politics and What to Eat. (She is also a professor at my alma mater, New York University.)

My thanks to the publisher and to the book's editors, Gary Allen and Ken Albala, for including me in the project. Gary is a professor at State University College of New York, Empire State College. He is also the author the Resource Guide for Food Writers, among other books. Ken is a professor in food history at the University of Pacific. He has written and edited many books. His newest is Beans: A History.
Photo Credit: Greenwood Press

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Give Thanksgiving More Than the Bird ....

.... or maybe "Put the Thanks Back in Thanksgiving" or perhaps "The Most Important Ingredient"

I had a lot of alternate titles for this post so of course I had to pick the one I thought was the funniest .....

Seriously, so much is made of the food on Thanksgiving that I sometimes feel compelled to be a glutton or feel overly virtuous if I just eat normally. While my motto sometimes seems to be to leave no meal unexamined, in Thanksgiving's case it should refer to the event not (just) the food.

So while you plan the perfect menu (or diss your in-laws choices), shop and chop til you drop and debate if it really can be Thanksgiving with salmon instead of turkey or apple instead of pumpkin pie, spend a few minutes thinking about the feelings, meanings and lessons behind Thanksgiving.

I don't mean to get political, but if that is your bent, go for it. Don't make your guests uncomfortable (unless that is your bent, too, and you are trying to whittle down the guest list for next year), but think of something special to say for the day. Or maybe ask a guest to bring some discussion questions or thoughts or a special prayer or blessing (suitable for all the religious or non-religious traditions of the guests please) instead of a cranberry mold salad. Or ask every guest to be prepared to say a bit on why they are thankful or what their families' immigration experiences were or about random acts of kindness they either participated in or witnessed in the last year. Or focus on how far we have yet to come, ask them to bring one example or anecdote of what still needs to change for America to be a better place for all. Give them some guidelines or let them decide, but if you are looking for meaningful guest participation, let them know in advance.

Or make up a Thanksgiving trivia contest on the holiday, the Pilgrims, the Native Americans, etc., and focus on the real, not commercial, history of the day. (Winner gets the wishbone?)

I have been struck that how Thanksgiving is this big meal and celebration at home, much like the Jewish Passover. But unlike Passover, there are no scripts or readings designed to touch on the history, the symbols and the meaning of the day. A few days ago I heard an ad on radio from the American Jewish Committee. The ad tied the Pilgrim's celebration of Thanksgiving to the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. The organization also offered a (non-religious) "Thanksgiving reader" for Americans to share as they celebrate the holiday. The reader, called "America's Table: A Thanksgiving Reader Celebrating Our Diverse Roots and Shared Values" is available for free as a pdf download through the committee's website. Readers from past years are also available.

This year's version tells the stories of seven individuals of very different backgrounds and relates their American experiences. It is one way to tell the Thanksgiving story. Whether you use it or not, I hope you will be inspired to say more at Thanksgiving this year than "pass the gravy."

May you have a happy, meaningful (and, of course, tasty) Thanksgiving.

Blog Appetit hits the road tomorrow for its own Thanksgiving trek. More when I return.
Happy Thanksgiving.
About the photo: "Waiting for the Turkey," Thanksgiving table at my sister Laura's, 2005

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Special Request Beef Stew Cuts the Mustard*

There are some recipes and techniques that are just down in one’s bones. For me it is making pot roast and by extension beef stew. Now I have pot roast memories and stories that would take about as long to tell as it takes the dish to simmer. I have a pretty good story about lamb stew, too. The only anecdote I have for beef stew, though, is straight forward and quick. I once saw a television show on France and French cooking that highlighted the dishes of Dijon. Not surprisingly folks there use mustard to thicken their beef stews. Next time I made a stew I tried it, liked it and made it part of the process.

This recipe is called Special Request Beef Stew because a friend who had it requested the recipe. I hadn’t intended to blog about the dish so I “just” made it without recording steps, ingredients and amounts, so this is an approximation based on my usual technique.

The recipe takes some time, but it really is relatively easy and produces a superlative beef stew. I do advise making it ahead (see A Note about the Beef below).

A Note about the Beef: I tried some beef stew meat from Niman Ranch in this recipe. The beef was lean, grass fed, antibiotic-free and took almost five hours to become truly tender and soft, a good two-three hours longer than regular commercial beef does. I think it was because it was so lean. The first night the beef tasted fine, the sauce was great but the beef did not meld with the sauce. The next day the stew was terrific, even outstanding, the flavors and textures marrying well. It was not at all greasy. All in all, I would really recommend using such a natural product, but only if you can prepare it ahead of time so the dish has a chance to pull itself together and be the best beef stew it can be.

Special Request Beef Stew
Serves 6-8

2 Tbs. grape seed or other vegetable oil
2 pounds of lean, natural beef for stew (chuck roast or steak), cut in 1" cubes (see note above)
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
Red pepper flakes
2 medium carrots, cut into ¾” pieces
1 large red pepper, seeded and cored, cut into ¾ inch chunks
2 stalks of celery, cut into ½” pieces
1 pound of crimini (brown) or white mushrooms, stemmed and cut into halves or quarters depending on size
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon ground or crushed Herbes de Provence (use a mix of fennel, basil, rosemary, thyme if you don’t have this French Provencal seasoning on hand, but you really should have it, it is very versatile and I use it as a quick base seasoning for many dishes from fish soup to pizza. Here is a link to the brand of Herbes de Provence I prefer.)
4 cups of beef broth or stock
8 oz of red wine
1-6 oz can of tomato paste
1 pound small or new potatoes, cut into halves or quarters to make approx. 1” chunks
1 ½ Tbsp of prepared Dijon mustard (the better the brand and the closer to Dijon it is produced the better)

Heat oil over medium high heat in a large, deep pot. Brown beef cubes on all sides, working in batches if needed so as not to crowd them. Remove and set aside. Sauté onions until beginning to soften, add garlic, sauté until just beginning to color, add a pinch or more of red pepper flakes to taste. Sauté a minute and add carrots, red peppers and celery. Sauté vegetable mixture for five to 10 minutes, until onions are beginning to brown. Add mushrooms and sauté until just beginning to soften. Add beef stock and red wine. Stir well, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom on the pot. Bring liquid to a simmer. Add tomato paste, stirring well until mixed in. Bring liquid back to simmer. Taste the liquid. If needed, add in ½ teaspoon of salt or to taste. (Note: Some commercial stocks and broths can be salty, so be sure to check.) Add in ½ teaspoon of the ground or crushed Provencal herbs, about ½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper and the beef cubes.

Cover and bring to simmer and cook over low heat for an hour. Add in mustard. Stir well to combine with the rest of the ingredients. Replace cover and return to simmer over a low heat for a half hour. Add in the potatoes, stirring well to make sure the beef and potatoes are covered in the sauce.

Simmer, covered, until the potatoes are cooked through and the meat is so soft you could cut it with a fork. (The potatoes will probably be ready before the meat, but that’s okay.) The timing will depend on the meat, it may take one or several more hours before the meat is truly, wonderfully tender. Don’t give up hope, just keep simmering away, as long as I start with the right cut of meat (chuck in this case) I’ve never had stew I couldn’t simmer into submission. When the meat practically melts in your mouth, uncover the pot. Taste and correct the seasonings. Leave the cover off the pot, increase heat to medium and let the stew cook a bit longer to thicken the sauce. (The sauce will continue to thicken as the stew sits overnight.) Transfer the stew to a container suitable for the refrigerator. Reheat the next day and serve topped with chopped fresh parsley if desired.
*Want to know more about the phrase "cut the mustard" or its variant "doesn't cut the mustard"? Click here.

Don't Call it Frisco

Blog Appetit is based out of the San Francisco Bay area but I have not really given the blog a real sense of place. I'd like to begin doing that. I've created a new category called "SF Bay Area" for people to click on to see every post on Blog Appetit on the subject. As I write more on the Bay area I may make a separate blog that links to Blog Appetit so I can give all the SF area posts more categorization.

I am looking to provide information for those searching the internet for news and tips about the Bay area, especially focused on food and food resources. I also would like to provide "news you can use" to those who live here on dishes, restaurants, people, places and resources they might not already know about.

I would also like to create a list of links for those who want to know more about the Bay area to use. I am looking for the quirky, the interesting, the only in the Bay area blogs or websites that really offer up solid info and recommendations and/or an interesting point of view. They need not be about food. If you have a recommendation for a link for this feature, please leave a comment below or email me through my profile.

More on this as I refine it.
About the photo: View of the Bay Bridge from AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Plethora of Peppers Oven Frittata

Say: "Can you cook a peck of peppers" three times fast?

Well a recent over abundance of bell peppers (red, yellow, orange and purple) had me feeling all twisted up. I used some in my Fajita Soup, but I still had a lot left over. What to do? Why, make an oven frittata and "clean out" the fridge of not just the peppers but some other vegetable odds and ends.

I made mine in a 9" x13" pan to serve at room temperature as an appetizer at a friend's birthday party. This is all completely adaptable, so feel free to experiment at will. (Warning if you do use purple bell peppers, taste them first, they can be a bit bitter -- I added a pinch of sugar to my egg mixture to compensate for it.)

This is a dish I turn to all the time when I need to entertain or I am looking for an easy supper dish. I can't remember the first time I made it, but I know it was on the menu at my younger son's bris (a Jewish ceremony celebrating the birth of a son). If I could make this with a toddler, a new baby and no help in the home a week after giving birth, anyone can make it after a busy day.

I can't find my recipe notes, so I'll just give the general outline for the dish and update the post later when and if the notes turn up.

The Incredibly Versatile Egg Oven Frittata -- Plethora of Peppers Version

Serves 6-8 for a meal, about double that as appetizers

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Saute 1/2 medium onion, chopped, and 2-3 cloves of chopped garlic in 2 tbsp. olive or vegetable oil until softened and slightly caramelized. Add in chopped peppers ( used about 3-4 small peppers, cored and seeded), saute until almost soft. Add in chopped chard, kale, spinach or other greens. (I used about half a bunch of Swiss chard, chopping up the hard red stems and adding them with the peppers.) Saute until cooked through. Taste. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (If using bitter greens or purple peppers, add a pinch of sugar.) Saute a minute and set aside and let cool a bit.

In a large bowl, beat 10 eggs, add salt, pepper and other seasoning. (I used about 1 tsp ground French Provencal herbs and a 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes, feel free to adapt to your taste or use fresh herbs if you have.) Mix in grated cheese (I used a combination of sharp white cheddar and Parmesan -- maybe a cup -- but amount is up to you --use none or as much as two cups) and stir well.

Start by stirring a tablespoon of the vegetable mixture into the eggs and add more slowly being careful to stir well between each addition and to not scramble the eggs. Pour the egg-vegetable mixture into a greased 9"x 13" pan. Sprinkle top with paprika. (Try the Spanish smoked kind for an extra taste kick.) Bake for about 20 minutes or until eggs are just cooked through. (Notes: I like glass for eggs because it is easier to see when they have set. Using more eggs or a larger pan will change the thickness and means you will need to adjust the cooking time.) Remove from oven, garnish with chopped parsley and/or basil if desired. Cut into squares (small for appetizers or larger for brunch, lunch or dinner portions). Serve warm, room temperature or cold.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Foiled Again Again: Vacation Condo Steamed Fish

I was away this weekend and made a variant on the Vietnamese Steamed Fish baked in foil packets for my girlfriends. This is such an easy, low-calorie, low-fat and tasty technique and is so adaptable. (Plus it is easy to clean up and leaves no fish-cooking smell in the kitchen.) As with my Vacation Condo Soup , techniques and ingredients were driven by purchasing the minimal amount I could in the market and maximizing the limited kitchen resources available to me. (Please read the soup post to learn more tips for vacation condo cooking.) We did have to buy the foil (the smallest, $1.78 package, had just more than enough for us). The only seasonings at the condo were salt and pepper, so we tried to pack the flavor in with the vegetables and aromatics rather than buying expensive sauces or spices. We had the fish with bread, salad and microwaved butternut squash with watermelon for dessert. Our total cost for a fresh fish dinner for five was about $35, not bad considering how much it would have cost to go to a restaurant plus we got to be as rowdy and silly as we wanted to.

Vacation Condo Steamed Fish
Serves 5

2 pounds of fresh red snapper
salt and pepper
1 medium chopped leek, white and light green part only
2 cloves of garlic, finally minced
peel from 1/2 of a lemon either grated or finely minced
1 small red or yellow pepper, seeded and cored, chopped into 1/4 cubes
1/4 cup fennel bulb, chopped into 1/4 cubes
6 plum tomatoes, each tomato chopped into about 12-pieces each
1 tbsp of fresh fennel greens (fronds), minced
2 tbsp fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley, minced.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. (Please see the foiled again post for specific directions on how to make foil packets and cooking instructions.) In the center of a double thickness of foil, place a small handful of spinach leaves down and then place fish on top, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Scatter one fifth of leek, garlic and lemon peel on top of fish. Then scatter red pepper, fennel and tomato. Sprinkle a fifth of minced fresh fennel greens and parsley. Add a bit more salt and pepper if desired. Fold packet to seal in juices. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Bake in oven for 1bout 15 minutes or until fish is cooked through.

Notes: My filets were very long and on the thin side. I cut each in half and laid them side by side on the foil. If you are serving another vegetable dish or lots of sides, this could serve six, in that case cut the filets accordingly and make up six foil packets. You might want to increase the total amount of each a bit before dividing intos sixths
It was amusing to me that the last time (see the Vietnamese Steamed Fish link above) I made fish this way I had a whole pantry of seasoning and sauces to choose from, but this time I was so limited. This is one versatile technique.
About the photo: It's from my first download from my new Panasonic Lumix TZ3. It's the view from our villa at Seascape Resorts in Aptos, CA.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Foiled Again: Vietnamese Steamed Fish

What inspired this dish? I’m not exactly sure. I had bought the fish to make a recipe for my son who decided not to eat at home that night, so I had it in the house. I had lots of odds and ends of vegetables and I have a pantry stocked with all sorts of ethnic ingredients so I can cook pretty much any style of cuisine on a whim. All day at work I started to build this recipe in my mind. I started with wanting to steam the fish in the packet, which is one of my favorite ways to cook fresh fish since you get clean, bright flavors and not much clean up, and with not having to go to the store for anything. Then I started playing with flavor profiles and imagining the contents of my fridge and pantry. The result was:

Vietnamese Steamed Fish over Rice Noodles
Serves 4

¼ cup soy sauce
2 tbsp plus 1 tsp Vietnamese or Thai Fish Sauce (see notes below)
¼ cup vegetable oil (I used grape seed)
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced and then cut into thin strips plus 1 clove minced
4 leaves Swiss or other chard without hard stems, torn into large shreds
1.5 pounds of fresh white fish filets without skin, portioned into 4 pieces (I used mahi-mahi, about ¾ of an inch thick)
½ medium-sized leek, white part only, cut into 1” long very fine strips
2 tsp finely minced ginger
About 1” long piece of fresh lemongrass, outer hard layer discarded, minced, OR 1 tsp of finely grated lemon peel, yellow part only
4 tbsp grated or shredded peeled white turnip or daikon radish
4 tbsp grated or shredded carrots
4 tbsp grated or shredded green papaya (optional, see notes)
Small red bell pepper, cored and seeded and cut into 1” long shreds
Salt and pepper
About 8 ounces of rice stick noodles, about ¼” wide, OR fettuccine noodles

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Put soy sauce in a measuring cup, add 2 tbsp of fish sauce. Add water to make ½ cup. Add in oil and 3 cloves of sliced garlic. Stir well and set aside.

Take 8 long strips of aluminum foil. Double up. In the middle of each double strip, place a fourth of the torn chard leaves. Place a fish filet on top of that. Scatter one fourth each of the leek, ginger, lemongrass and minced garlic on each piece. Scatter one fourth of the turnip, carrot, green papaya (if using) and red bell pepper on top. Stir the soy sauce mixture. Sprinkle each vegetable-topped filet with 1 tsp of the soy sauce mixture and ¼ tsp of fish sauce. Scatter a bit of salt (careful the soy and fish sauces are salty, too) and grind a bit of fresh black pepper on top and seal each packet so cooking juices can’t escape (see notes). Place the four foil packets on a baking tray and put in the oven. Bake for about 20 minutes (see notes) or until fish is cooked.

While the fish is cooking, prepare the noodles according to package instructions. Drain. Stir the soy sauce mixture. Toss the noodles with just enough of the soy mixture to lightly coat (you might have dressing left over, use any leftover as a stir fry sauce for vegetables.)

Place noodles on plate, open foil packet and slide fish and vegetables on top of noodles and pour any cooking juices over fish and noodles.


Here are some tips on making foil packets. You could also use parchment paper for the steaming packets.

The timing of cooking the fish depends on the thickness of your filets. My ¾” filets took about 20 minutes. Adjust according to the thickness of your fish and be prepared to open one of the packets to check on the fish at some point. The fish will continue cooking in the foil packages until unwrapped, so if you are making them in advance of serving or holding them awhile before serving, slightly undercook the fish.

I had a leftover fish packet over noodles and greens drizzled with a few drops of the leftover soy mixture as a salad the next day for lunch. It was good, too.

I opted for the garlic and ginger taste to dominate. You could certainly add some spice to the dish by adding a ¼ tsp or so of Asian hot chili paste to the soy sauce mixture.

Fish sauce is widely available in some supermarkets, on line and in Asian grocers. Here is some background on it.

A green papaya is NOT an unripe regular papaya. It is available in Asian markets. My local Vietnamese market even carries it pre-shredded.
On a personal note, so far this week I've made this dish, lamb tandori with vegetable korma (Indian) and Korean bbq beef ribs and stirfry broccoli (made with the leftover soy dressing from the fish recipe) -- see where a well-stocked pantry can take you!
I made a similar but simpler variation of this here.
This post is part of Sweetnick's weekly ARF roundup. I can't believe it is the 96th such roundup she's hosted. Here's the link.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Trader Joe's Fajita Soup

I hadn’t planned to make tonight’s soup a tribute to Oakland getting two new Trader Joe’s markets but it ended up that way.

Originally I planned a soup to use up a plethora of peppers I had in the fridge but it kind of morphed after my inaugural trip to one of the new TJ’s. The Future Pastry Chef loved this soup so I’ll revise it in the near future without the TJ ingredients so it can be made without any special trips to the store.

Some notes: I used frozen roasted corn kernels ( a freezer favorite of mine, try it in this smoky corn soup, too), you could sub regular frozen corn and/or add a can of drained, rinsed beans. (I would have used both the roasted corn and the beans except that the FPC is not a big fan of bean soups.) If you can’t get the chicken in pollo asado marinade, use any grilled chicken and add more seasoning to the soup when you add the chicken stock, such as a few dashes of hot sauce and a dash each of cumin and oregano. You can use regular plain yogurt or sour cream to replace the TJ Greek yogurt.

Trader Joe's Fajita Soup
Serves 4-6

2 tbs grape seed or other vegetable oil
½ medium onion, sliced into thin slivers about 1 and 1/2 inches long
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, sliced into rounds
2 medium red and/or yellow bell peppers, cored and seeded and sliced into thin strips about 1 and ½ inches long
1-29 ounce can peeled Italian plum tomatoes with juices
1 quart of chicken stock
1 ½ cups of Trader Joe’s frozen roasted corn kernels
1-15 oz. can of black or pinto beans, drained and rinsed (optional)
1 to 1 ½ pounds of Trader Joe’s boneless and skinless chicken breasts in asado marinade (labeled Pollo Asado), grilled, cooled and then hand shredded into large chunks or strips
Salt and Pepper
Toppings: Trader Joe’s Non-Fat Greek Yogurt, avocado slices, chopped cilantro, chopped green onion, salsa

Tortilla chips and/or tortillas

Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until softened, add garlic and sauté until just beginning to color. Add carrots and let cook a bit, stirring frequently. Add pepper strips and sauté until beginning to soften. Add tomatoes and juices, breaking tomatoes into large chunks with a cooking spoon. Add corn and beans (if using) and chicken stock, stir well. Cover and let cook until the soup comes to a simmer, then add in chicken. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer until vegetables are cooked through and the chicken is thoroughly heated. Taste and correct seasonings. This recipe is on the mild side, you might want to spice it up with some hot sauce to taste as well. Ladle into bowls and serve with choice of toppings and accompaniments. If using the chips, try putting some on the bottom of the bowl and ladling the soup over them.

I still had a plentiful number of peppers I needed to use up, so click here to see what I did with them.