baking

chocolate whats-its, cranberry whatnots and lemon thinglings

Well, there’s no snow here but there’s a Christmas tree – and where there’s a Christmas tree, there must be Christmas cookies. I think it’s one of the laws of physics (maybe number 25?)

In the middle are luxurious Argentinean alfajores, or hockey pucks as Pat calls them. The crumbly cookies sandwich golden dulce de leche and then are dipped in chocolate ganache like these. You can also cover them in coconut and marvel at your fine fancy hockey pucks.

On the left are incredibly easy but richly rewarding cranberry shortbread which are buttery and punchy with bits of tart cranberry. These are convenient to make the dough ahead of time and slice and bake as you need them. And they look festive, too.

Lastly, these lemon almond cookies are fantastic and highly addictive little bites of bright lemon, which are especially refreshing if you’re over all the pumpkin spice blah-de-blah and cinnamon whatevers and peppermint who-cares. No judgement, just consider de-Grinching yourself instantly with a tin of these cookies (and if you feel like it, even share them.)

lunch/dinner

rockin moroccan night

My big brother came to town to absorb some Cali culture and I had to have a flawless welcome plan. My brother lives in Singapore and has all of the amazing flavors of SE Asia at his doorstep, so I decided to draw from a cuisine that he probably doesn’t get too much of at home but is as bold, flavorful and complex as the cuisine of SE Asia to appeal to his palate: Moroccan. This grilled fish and veggie kebabs recipe allowed me to finally break into one of my favorite cookbooks, the gorgeous Modern Moroccan, and also to practice some more on the grill. The only specialty non-substitutable ingredients you need are preserved lemons and harissa, a spice mixture. You can easily make your own preserved lemons, but you’d have to do it months in advance.  Like me, you can buy the stuff at a specialty grocer (Whole Foods had some) or a Middle Eastern store.

The original recipe is for an appetizer serving of whole red mullet, but this recipe makes plenty (like, a lot!) for a dinner serving. I had originally wanted to use a firm white fish like halibut but salmon seemed like an easy way to grill fish without too much worry and the flavors worked amazingly well with this richer fish.

The chermoula is bright and fresh, and the stew of veggies with preserved lemons is a complex layering of acidic, umami-savory, briny, and tart. The salmon grilled in its skin turned out really moist and perfectly done to a flaky medium rare. I know there are skin-down and skin-up controversies, but I found leaving the salmon skin down and shutting the lid of the grill made a really moist fish that was not overcooked even despite varying thicknesses of fillets. It was simple to slide the salmon off the skins and then ladle the stew with veggies over the fish to serve family-style. You can serve this over fluffed up garlic infused couscous for a complete Moroccan meal. For my stew i added purple potatoes, rainbow carrots, and vibrant heirloom tomatoes off the vine for even more color.

The veggies have the Moroccan inflected flavor of tart lemon and aromatic cinnamon which is simply fresh and slightly subtle. The yogurt dip is perfect for dipping the grilled veggies in, or as we did, mixed into the couscous and salmon stew. Its a simple dip with a nice peppery kick from the harissa that would be great for other uses – pita chip dip, topping a baked potato – that makes it certainly worth hunting down a jar or tube of harissa.

summer vegetable kebabs with harissa and yogurt dip

instructions slightly adapted from a recipe in Modern Moroccan, 2008, Ghillie Basan

equal sized pieces of any or all of the following vegetables:

eggplant

zucchini

bell peppers

red onion

cherry tomatoes

vegetable marinade:

4 Tbsp olive oil

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp clear honey

1 tsp salt

harissa and yogurt dip:

2 cups Greek yogurt

2-4 Tbsp harissa

small bunch of fresh cilantro, finely chopped

small bunch of mint, finely chopped

salt and ground pepper

Preheat the grill on the hottest setting. Put all the vegetables in a bowl. Mix the ingredients for the vegetable marinade together and pour the mixture over the vegetables. Using your hands, turn the vegetables gently in the marinade, then thread them onto metal or water-soaked wooden skewers. Cook the kebabs on the grill, turning them occasionally until the vegetables are nicely browned over.

To make the dip, put the yogurt in a bowl and beat in a tablespoon of harissa, making it as fiery as you like by adding more harissa. Add most of the cilantro and mint, reserving a little to garnish, and season well with salt and pepper.

serves 4

salmon with chermoula and preserved lemons

slightly adapted from a recipe in Modern Moroccan, 2008, Ghillie Basan

2-3 Tbsp olive oil, plus extra for brushing

1 onion, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1/2 preserved lemon, finely chopped

4 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped

2 1/2 cups fish stock or water

3-4 new potatoes, peeled and cubed

4 six-oz salmon filets

handful of black olives, pitted and halved or sliced

small bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped

small bunch of mint, chopped

salt and ground black pepper

chermoula:

small bunch of fresh cilantro, finely chopped

2-3 garlic cloves, chopped

1-2 tsp ground cumin

pinch of saffron threads

4 Tbsp olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

1 Tbsp crushed red pepper

1 tsp salt

To make the chermoula, process the ingredients together in a food processor then set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the onion and carrot and cook until softened but not browned. Stir in half the preserved lemon, along with 2 Tbsp of the chermoula, the tomatoes and the fish stock or water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Add the potatoes and simmer for a further 10 minutes, until they are tender.

Preheat the grill on the hottest setting and brush a grill pan with oil. Brush the fish fillets with olive oil and a little of the chermoula. Season with salt and pepper, then place the fillets, skin side down, on the pan and cook with lid closed for 10 minutes per 1 inch thickness.

Meanwhile, stir the olives, the remaining chermoula and preserved lemon into the sauce and check the seasoning. Slide a spatula to separate the fish from the skin and serve the fish fillets in wide bowls, spoon the sauce over and sprinkle liberally with chopped cilantro and mint.

serves 4

baking

well, they can’t all be winners

A bad food day can be can leave you unsatisfied, but a bad week just leaves you discouraged.  This week, I came to such a point and had to just call it a day. First, we tried a new restaurant that was promising but proved to be lackluster. Then yesterday, a baking project failed miserably. The only saving grace for either endeavor was the spectacular presentation that hid the grim truth underneath.  So thanks to a tip from my friend Katey, I’d been trying out new restaurants thanks to some deals from BlackboardEats, a newsletter that offers discounts in SF, NY, and LA. I’ve had great luck at some of them (the heirloom tomato salad at Serpentine still makes me salivate just thinking about it), but Billy and my experience at Another Monkey was memorable for all the wrong reasons. I was excited to go because Thai food is by far my favorite cuisine, it had just recently opened, and the menu seemed to include some interesting twists on authentic regional specialities.  What I should have realized is that newness of the restaurant would color the experience entirely.

Let me start by saying that the restaurant itself is beautiful and chic with modern decor and sexy lighting with corners filled with Thai art and sculptures. They cleverly used groupings of upright copper or aluminum pipes as room dividers. Once seated, we were offered a great deal, a prix fixe menu for $30 that included a sampling of appetizers, soup,  3 small plates of curries with rice and a vegetable side, and dessert. Despite the bargain, we ended up eating maybe 1/2 of the food and left before dessert. And it wasn’t because we were overstuffed, either, and I rarely say no to dessert!  One hour and a long-nursed cocktail later, we received our first course, an appetizer sampler that was a beautiful platter of all the spectrums of brown.

Sure, most things were fried but in our case everything appeared to have been fried 15 minutes earlier. The crisp was long gone on the fish cakes, calamari and shrimp dumplings.  B did like the Chiang Mai pork sausage, although they were a bit leaden. And in what should have been a clue to us from the get-go, the spring rolls were dry and flavorless. Look, it doesn’t take much to make a good spring roll. Keep it moist and pack it with aromatics and the freshest ingredients and you won’t have your authentic Thai restaurant card taken away.

After 1/2 an hour we received some tom yum kung soup which had none of the steamy, savory quality (or flavor) that was expected. The next course was  a sampling of entrees. We had the pumpkin curry with tofu, beef with mango and cashews, and eggplant with shrimp and scallops in chili sauce. The pumpkin curry was adequate. As in, I would pay $5 for this for takeout at lunch but I’ll never remember that I ate it. The eggplant dish (usually my favorite) was lacking heat or complexity, two things I always associate with well-made Southeast Asian food. We also had a side of pea shoots with garlic that actually tasted fresh and was flavorful, but after chewing for 7 minutes I had to spit it out.  At this point, looking at the 2 hour mark, we decided to bail on dessert. The plus was that the cocktails were a definite hit. The lemongrass gimlet, made with vodka, was refreshing and delicious. I also had a strawberry Thai-style caiparinha made with jalapenos, which sounds strange but the sourness of the pepper really balanced out the sweetness of the drink.  Hopefully with time they’ll improve the food and service to match the decor and cocktails, but there are far too many places to eat here for me to go back and try again.

Luckily, I don’t own a restaurant, because I would be an inconsistent mess. Usually my baking experiments produce something edible, if sloppy-looking, but yesterday the opposite was the case. I’d made this tart of berries and lemon curd many years ago to rectify a prior culinary offense. As a poor student, I invited my friend Jeffrey over for dinner and then proceeded to serve him store-bought pasta with jarred sauce. I threw in the “poor student” bit above, but I admit that it was no excuse for a truly horrifying meal. So, at his housewarming party I tried to impress him with this tart (it’s made from scratch!) and it worked well enough to absolve me from humiliation. B and I had a cookout to go to and I thought this would be perfect for a gorgeous summer day. I love the tartness of lemon curd and the grocers are all bursting at the seam with fresh berries. And let me just admit that the results were inviting, no?

The truth is, it was a complete disaster. I could not for the life of me get the crust right. It’s a basic pâte sucrée, but in the 10 years or so since I last made this I have apparently lost all ability to make a pastry dough. (Yes, that’s the last time I tried). So I scrapped that and made an easy graham cracker crust which may or made not hold up its shape (I suspect the latter). The death-blow was the curd, though. I love lemon curd and it really isn’t that difficult to make. You just have to be careful to keep it stirred to prevent the eggs from cooking out and maintain a creamy smooth consistency. It’s easy for me to tell you this now because it is precisely what I failed to do. I could have saved it, I suppose, by straining it at the end but I even took a shortcut there as I was racing to get it to the fridge to have enough time to chill and set. In the end it didn’t matter, as the result is a grainy, slightly curdled lemon pudding that’s no where silken enough to call a true lemon curd. I plated it up, hoping that a nice presentation might sway me to serve it anyway, but no dice. I suppose I’ll only share it with B, where there is no judgement over grainy curd and pastry dough failures, and resolve to stow away this recipe for a day when I feel particularly invincible in my apron.