Monday, May 29, 2006

pecan granola

One food epiphany I had recently, while reading the back of an oatmeal box, is how very easy it is to make your own granola. Homemade granola is simply a mix of oats, nuts and dried fruit, baked in the oven until crunchy. The fun lies in customization: you can add wheat flakes for a Swiss-style muesli, choose almonds , walnuts or macadamia, paired with, for example, chopped dates, dried cherries or lime zest, add seeds like sesame or sunflower, toss with brown sugar or honey. The possibilities are infinite.

It's also a great way to clean out your pantry (which I've been trying to do this week since I will be traveling all of next month.) Taking cue from a bag of pecans left unshelled since the fall, I decided to make maple granola with pecans, dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds. Sprinkle over a dallop of ceamy yogurt and enjoy it while crunchy or wait a little until it gets soft.

Maple granola with pecans, dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds

-butter 6 tablespoons
-maple syrup 1 cup
-rolled oats 3 cups
-pecans, shelled 1 cup
-raw pumpkin seeds 1 cup
-dried cranberries 1 cup
-salt 1 teaspoon

Melt in a small saucepan butter and maple syrup (try Grade B, which has a deeper flavor.) Combine in a large bowl the rolled oats, pecans,raw pumpkin seeds and salt. Pour over the butter syrup and toss to coat. Scatter the mix across a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cranberries and cool completely before storing in airtight container.

(Pecans have smooth and slippery shells and are impossible to crack without crushing the nutmeat to bits. Is there a technique I wonder?)

Monday, May 22, 2006

lemon loaves

The above work is by Spanish artist Francisco de Zubaran titled Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633) and it's one of my favorite paintings at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Everytime I go there I first head straight to this painting; it's like greeting an old friend. I'm always drawn to art that features food but I think this painting sets itself apart from the usual themes of abundance with its air of gravity and spiritual austerity. In contrast to the artfully casual arrangements seen in most still-lifes, the three motifs -- the plate of lemons, basket of orange blossoms and fruit, a water-filled cup and a rose -- are laid across in a strictly horizontal line, as if they were votive offerings. Perhaps it's strange to feel uplifted by images of fruit and blossoms but to me, it's a devotional painting.

At the same time it's an incredibly sensual painting. Close-up the texture of the lemon and orange peel is irresistably inviting and will make you want to get out your zester. You can almost smell the fragant citrus oils rising and the delicate perfumes of the orange blossom and rose. After spending any amount of time in front of this painting, I get an urge go buy lemons.

How best to taste a lemon's fragrance? Lemon curd or lemonade jumps to mind, but I think the essence of a lemon lies in the zest, rather than in the juice. The following is a recipe for an aromatic pound cake, adapted from a recipe for the splendid vanilla bean loaves at Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here each vanilla bean is replaced by the zest of lemons:

Lemon loaves, adapted from Hi-Rise's recipe for vanilla bean loaves (published in Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte)

-3 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
-2 1/2 cups of lemon sugar (zest two lemons and stir into the sugar; let sit for a few days)
-zest of two lemons
-8 large eggs, at room temperature
-3 cups flour
-1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
-1/2 teaspoon of salt

(for the syrup)
-1 3/4 cups of sugar
-1 cup of water
-zest of two lemons

1. Generously butter two loaf pans (8 by 4 by 3 inches) and heat your oven to 325 degrees F.
2. Cream the butter with lemon sugar until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Add the lemon zest, then the eggs. Beat to mix.
3. Stir in the sifted flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix just until smooth.
4. Divide the batter between the two pans and bake for 30 minutes. Turn the pans around and bake for 30 minutes more.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the syrup: In a small pan dissolve the sugar in water over medium heat. Stir in the lemon zest, turn off the heat and let their fragrance disperse.
6. When the loaves are done cool for 10 minutes, then turn them out of their pans onto a parchment sheet. Brush them all over with the syrup. Repeat several times as they cool. This process contributes to the cake's wonderful graininess and pebbly texture.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mother's Day

Previously I wrote about ofukuro no aji, or mother's taste, but I think the single most potent form of maternal expression in Japanese culture must be the obento boxes that mothers prepare for their pre-school children.

Historically, bento originated as portable food for long journeys, usually rice and savoury tidbits wrapped in a bamboo leaf or carried in woven baskets. The main idea was a meal that could be eaten cold and would not perish on the road, thus contents were well-seasoned and thoroughly cooked. Partitioned and lidded decorative boxes (usually lacquered) came into use at the close of the politically tumultuous Momoyama period (1568-1600) and during the relatively stable Edo period (1600-1686) that followed, bento increasingly become associated with pleasure and entertainment. Popular variations included hanami-bento (for cherry-blossom viewing) and maku-no-uchi bento (literally, "between the scenes"; eaten between the acts at kabuki theater).

Today bento is ubiquitous in collective life in Japan, in school as well as at work. When I used to work for a Tokyo newspaper, every day after the first deadline delivery boys would race around the newsroom handing a bento to each employee. The contents varied: sometimes they would be a classical shake bento (a bit of broiled salmon, a piece of tamagoyaki egg, some pickled vegetables) sometimes a Western-style yoshoku bento (tonkatsu breaded pork cutlets, for example, always with side of shredded cabbage) or a Chinese-style chuka bento, which might feature shumai dumplings. Whatever the style there was always a square of white rice with a red umeboshi, salt-preserved plum in the center, patriotically resembling the Japanese flag.

These bentos were store-ordered but when it comes to school, that's another matter. A measure of good motherhood is your ability to rise at the crack of dawn each morning and put together a nutritious and attractive bento for your child. In assembling the contents, you must follow several rules. First is the rule of 4-3-2-1, which means that the bento box must be composed of four parts rice, three parts protein, two parts vegetable and one part fruit. The various elements must be arranged artfully in varying colors and shapes and carefully divided by partitions and foil. It must be neatly wrapped in cloth with accompanying pair of child-sized chopsticks.

Above all, you must make your child's bento as cute as possible. Hence carrot slices are cut into flower shapes while apple wedges are peeled to resemble bunnies. Miniature sausage links are slit before being fried so that legs curl up to look like an octopus. Rice toppings are often sprinkled on in the shape of a heart or animals, with the help of cookie cutters. To be sure, children love eye candy and these picture-perfect bento represent a labor of love, the desire to please your child. But I wonder if it is also not a misplaced form of competition among mothers who need to establish social pecking order through their children or driven by fears that your child will be ostracized by conformist peers.

I personally never experienced "cute" bento and never recall ever wanting one. After moving to the U.S. I quickly embraced the brown bag lunch combo of sandwich and apple. My mother did too, after a teacher gently hinted that the onigiri rice balls she initially packed were a bit strange (perhaps it was the black nori) and not quite appropriate for school.

Some decades later, I am in turn packing lunches for my daughter. A serreptitious peek into the lunch bags of her classmates reveal: quesadillas, kimichi sushi rolls, hummus and Arabic bread, heaped rather pell-mell into practical tupperwares. Not a peanut butter & jelly sandwich in sight (in any case all nuts are forbidden, for reasons of allergies.) The only common denominator is that they are "healthy"and otherwise reflect the diverse cultural origins of her class. For my part I sometimes find myself subconsciously following the rule of 4-3-2-1 as I fill my daughter's Hello Kitty bento box, even if it does not necessarily include rice...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Food Destinations: Pasadena, CA

"Food Destinations" is a blogging event proposed by I was just really very hungry's Maki Itoh that asks: If your favorite food blogger/ food lover came to town, where would you take him/her?

Pasadena, where I live, is known as a dining destination in a minor way. The restaurant rows in the Old Town run the whole gamut from trendy Thai to authentic Indian, French, Cuban and all manners of fusion, some of them quite good, but I tried to avoid Zagat-listed establishments as much as possible. Instead I tried to choose spots that offer the unique flavor of the place which is old Southern Californian, inflected by neighboring Latino and Asian communities, that decidedly sets itself apart from the LA scene.

Here is my list of top five places:

The Athanaeum (early-bird breakfast)
A good place to get an all-out all-American breakfast is the faculty club at the California Institute of Technology. Coffee is bottomless, orange juice is freshly squeezed. "Two eggs any style" is prepared with precision, replete with beautiful hash browns, choice of crispy bacon, ham or sausage. The stately dining room looks out to a Spanish-style patio surrounded by eucalyptus trees and may include a Nobel-laureate or two. No need to show ID; act like you came down from your Albert Einstein suite and ask to pay in cash. Breakfast served between 7-9 a.m. 551 S. Hill Ave. Pasadena, CA 91106 (626) 395-8200

Europane Bakery (mid-morning break)
See previous post on Sumi Chang's artisanal breads and pastries. A recent discovery is their fabulous bread pudding. It is a small, perfect disk that you can hold in your hands and bite into. Pure butter, sugar and brioche, no superfluous flavorings or toppings -- there's no need, it's that good. You can judge the quality of the butter used by its luscious caramelized edges and the moist perfection of its interior, not too soggy or too eggy as most bread puddings are. Added bonus: Just a few blocks up is Vroman's, my favorite bookstore, with an attractive and intelligent selection of cookbooks and food-writing. 950 E. Colorado Blvd. Pasadena, CA 91106 (626) 577-1828

Cafe Verde (terrace lunch)
See previous post about this shoe-in-the box neighborhood restaurant that offers up wonderful Californian/Mexican fusion. Something I did not mention is the grilled chicken linguini bathed in creamy chipotle sauce with roasted pasilla, corn and cilantro. It's a lovely dish. Eating here made me become aware of the magic of chiles, the subtle ways they work to give dishes not only heat and bite but also depth and character. Bring your own bottle if you like; there is no corkage fee. Lunch served until 3 p.m. 961 E. Green St. Pasadena, CA 91106 (626) 356-9811

Pacific Asia Museum (afternoon refreshment)
It might seem strange but the best gelataria in town is tucked away in a Chinese-style courtyard. Icecream was invented in China after all. Peruse the museum's small but distinctive collection of Asian art, then seat yourself by the koi-filled pond for a tasting of one of Leo's handmade creations. The Roma-native is blithely dismissive of American fear of fat; his speciality is an egg-rich variation called gelato all'uova, sublime. 46 N. Los Robles Ave. Pasadena, CA 91101 (626) 449-2742
Note: The picturesque courtyard is often used for location shoots for film and TV. When the camera crews are around the cafe is closed so be sure to call ahead.

Pie n' Burger (old-fashioned diner)
A Pasadena landmark and sole exception to my non-Zagat rule. The cheeseburger comes half-wrapped in wax paper, vertically built up with iceberg lettuce, pickle, onion, slice of orange cheese and housemade Thousand Island dressing. You might cringe, but it works. Even purists come to love it. The crusty waitress will warn you against the chicken pot pie ("too many flavorings") and steer you towards the chile made from scratch -- nice with greasy fries. Try also the root beer float or a slice of double-crusted pie with bright red cherry filling, a classic. 913 E. California Blvd. Pasadena, CA (626) 795-1123

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cambridge chowder

When it comes to clam chowder, I adhere to the milk-based New England school. I say this at the expense of antagonizing the Manhatten school (tomatoe-based), and not because I lived in Boston for three years. To be honest I like both, but I do feel that when you are using fresh clams the acidity of tomatoe will somewhat mask the clean, briny flavors.

The following recipe uses a chowder base adapted from Julia Child, who was alive and living in Cambridge at the time I was a student (I never saw her but often heard stories of sightings):

New England clam "chowdah"

1. Prepare the clams: scrub them under cold water and soak in salted water for at least half an hour so they will spit out the grit and sand. Drain, transfer to a pot and add 2 cups of water. Cover tightly and bring to a boil. They should open within 5 minutes. Discard those that do not. Remove the clams from their shells and chop them coarsely. Strain the pot contents through a sieve and set aside

2. Prepare the chowder base: Cook one chopped onion in 2 tablespoons of butter until soft but not brown. Add 2 waxy potatoes, diced into smallish cubes. Add 2 cups of water (or the reserved clam juice) and simmer until the potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Add 2 cups of "half-and-half" or whole milk and cream combined, a bay leaf or two and sea salt to taste.

3. To finish: Add the chopped clams and bring to a simmer (do not boil). Ladle into warmed soup bowls and serve with "oyster" salt crackers.

* To make fish chowder: With the base, gently poach pieces of solid white fish such as halibut. In this case, you might add several slices of bacon cut into strips when cooking the onion and potatoes to strengthen the chowder base. Add blanched snowpeas for color and crunch.

Monday, May 01, 2006

asparagus in Alsace

Every 1st of May, my thoughts turn towards asparagus. It was my first taste of Strasbourg where we were to make a home for five years and also the month of May, the time I would choose to return to it.

I arrived solo, my husband's departure from Boston being held up, to spend the first few nights alone in our new apartment near the Orangerie. Not knowing a soul and speaking hardly a word of French, the first thing I did was to set out in search of something to eat. By chance I happened upon a sleepy epicerie, miraculously open on the national holiday. I bought a bagful of stray asparagus stalks, not knowing that white asparagus, unlike green, need to be peeled before being cooked. As a result the lower parts were too tough to eat and I ended up making a meal of soft mushy heads.

As subsequent May Days came and went I came to learn a thing or two about les asperges. That the pale asparagus, as thick as your thumb, are abundantly produced in the region of Alsace and make their first appearance in markets around May. That they should be peeled and trimmed and tied up with string into a bundle. That they should be cooked standing in a tall pot with their purple-tinged heads sticking out of the salted water, a pinch of sugar added. That steaming spears should be eaten with fingers, dipped in a sauce of Hollandaise or vinaigrette. Or served dozen to a person in the company of jambon cuit.

Before leaving Strasbourg I went to the poterie on a narrow street behind the majestic cathedral, a tiny hole-in-the wall place packed with ceramics produced in the village of Souffleheim. The potters are known for their hand-painted wares, in particular the oblong-shaped lidded terrines for making baeckoffe.* What caught my eye though was an asparagus dish, a two-part vessel with the top plate punctured with small holes.

Most such dishes intended solely for the purpose of serving asparagus tend to be porcelain mimicries of the vegetable's form and color. This plate was a simple oval shape in warm ochre with a lovely crackled surface under the translucent glaze. I purchased it as a souvenir of Strasbourg and to remind me of the ethereal quality of May, of that special lull, that langorous anticipation of beautiful days to come.

*To make the Alsatian specialty: Marinate in a bottle of local wine (Sylvaner is good; save your Reisling to make coq au Reisling and Gewurztraminer for the foie gras) chunks of pork, beef and lamb (about 500g each) with chopped leeks, onion and bay leaf. The next day slice potatoes (about 1.5kg) and layer the rounds with the marinade in a 6-person terrine. Mix flour with water to make a pasty braid and work it around the lid to hermetically seal the pot. Let it sit in a low temperature oven for about 6 hours. Instructions by Madame Mahler at Poterie d'Alsace, 3 rue des Freres, 67000 Strasbourg, (03) 88-32-23-21.