Sunday, March 21, 2010

For the Love of Steak

Four more years!

No, I am not referring to an upcoming presidential election. I am referring to Zach and me. March 22nd will mark the 4th anniversary of our 1st date. We were Juniors in college at the University of Florida. We were both a part of Student Upstart Films which was a club started by Sue (of Sube). Our first official date was to go see the movie, V for Vendetta, a movie I had already seen once at the time. The movie was fine but not something I would normally see twice in one week. Our first dinner date was to Outback Steakhouse in Gainesville. We both ordered the "Outback Special" since the love of steak was something we had in common.

Here we are four years later. We have been through so many life experiences together from studying for exams, graduating college, moving across the country, starting jobs, quitting jobs, countless trips, debates and laughs. Everything is better with someone you love by your side. A quiet evening in front of the television is something I look forward to. One thing that has failed to change is our love for steak. Zach has seen my passion for cooking grow over the last few years, but I have never been a master at the grill. He, on the other hand, has perfected the art of grilling. He can make the perfect steak nearly every time, and it never fails to impress me.

For our anniversary this year, we took a trip down to a little town about an hour northeast of San Diego called Descanso. We stayed in a rock cabin in a small neighborhood community near the Cuyamaca Mountains. The cabin was an old cozy space with nothing but mountain country charm.

There was a fireplace, an old wooden checkerboard, a kitchen straight out of the 50's, a creek out back made of freshly-melted snow and a hot-tub on the back patio underneath a gazilion bright stars. Zach became very friendly with out neighbor.

The cabin was about a half hour outside of a small historically rich town called Julian, CA. Julian is famous for its apple pie and its important role in the California Gold Rush in the late 1800s. There is a Wolf Center where you can observe large Alaskan Gray Wolves in a semi-natural habitat. There are antique shops and a small used bookstore on the main street. We ate Bar-b-que and Apple Mountain Berry Pie after a 4 mile loop hike at Stonewall Mountain trail in the Cuyamca Mountains.

The cabin itself was so cozy, we decided to make a nice dinner. Steak seemed like an appropriate anniversary meal. Filet Mignon, grilled shrimp, blue cheese vinaigrette salad and bruschetta were all on the menu. Wouldn't you like to know how to grill the perfect steak?

Here are some tips from Zach:
Set a gas grill on high heat, and let preheat for 7-10 minutes.
While the grill is pre-heating, season the steaks with a little bit of each of the following: balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, garlic powder.
Put steaks on the grill on the high heat.
Press down on the steaks with a long spatula until a small amount of juice drips into the flame; this will make the flame jump, searing the outside of the steak.
If you like an exceptionally seared steak (you know, with that little crisp to the outside like you find in restaurants), pour some beer or whiskey on the grill (the higher the alcoholic content of the beverage you use, the more crisp the outside of the steak will be).
Turn the heat down to medium, close the lid of the grill and allow steaks to cook about 10 minutes (flipping every 3 minutes) for a medium rare steak.
After you remove the steaks from the grill, wait at least 5 minutes before cutting into it.

This should all be followed the next day by a hearty breakfast in the crisp, cool, morning mountain air.

Just stay clear of Alaskan Gray Wolves looking to run off with your meat before you cook it.

Alaskan Gray Wolf crunches a raw chicken leg like it is a pretzel at the California Wolf Center in Julian, CA.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Can I Halvah Cookie Please?

I’ll Halvah cookie please.

The girl scouts are about town this time of year, peddling their cookies and smiles. Those cookies are good, but I have never really been one to buy up a bunch of boxes. I have maybe bought a box once in my life. I have, of course, tasted most of the varieties: favorites include thin mints and samoas. I used to like the shortbread ones too with a tall glass of milk when I was little. I guess that is what came to mind when I saw this recipe in Food and Wine Magazine a wile back. Tahini shortbread cookies not only involved the nostalgic shortbread but also tahini (which is simply sesame paste), something I have grown up eating for a long time.

The fact that I grew up eating this means I may have developed a taste for it because I am tentative to say everyone will love these cookies. The taste reminds me of halvah (in which tahini is also a major ingredient). It has a very distinct sweet, nutty and rich flavor. It comes in a block and almost has the texture of cement before it dries. I know that does not make it sound appetizing, but it makes for a great spread for pita bread. I would compare spreading halvah on a pita as the exotic equivalent to spreading Nutella on a slice of white bread. Tahini itself is not sweet; in fact it is borderline bitter. We used to mix tahini with dibis (date syrup); I imagine this would not be appetizing to most people, but who knows?

Anyway, these cookies taste like the cookie version of halvah. They are pretty rich (as halvah is meant to be a spread not just eaten on its own) so I imagine you would eat just one or two at a time. Like I said, this is not for everyone so if you are not familiar with these flavors you might not like these little cookies. They have a dry, delicate consistency. They almost just seem to dissolve with a gulp of milk; you must have milk! I think they would also be great if you substituted finely ground pistachios or almonds for the sesame seeds around the edges.

Halvah Cookie (Tahini Shortbread Cookies)
(a recipe by Maura Kilpatrick featured in Food and Wine Magazine)

1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup tahini, stirred
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, crushed
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sesame seeds

In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter with the tahini, confectioners' sugar and salt at medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.
Add the flour and beat until incorporated.
Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead just until it comes together. Divide the dough in half and roll each piece into a 15-inch log, about 1 inch thick.
Scatter the sesame seeds on a sheet of parchment paper and roll the logs until completely coated. Roll each log in parchment and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 325° and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
Unroll one log and slice it 1/4 inch thick (I sliced them more like 3/4 inches...way too thick!).
Arrange the slices on the baking sheets. Bake the cookies in the center and lower-thirds of the oven for about 25 minutes, or until golden, shifting the pans from front to back and top to bottom halfway through baking. Slide the parchment onto a rack and let the cookies cool completely. Repeat with the second log of dough.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

feed me l.a.

I think anyone who knows me knows I like to eat out. My favorite thing is to try new restaurants, and nothing excites me more than to push my opinions and experiences with them onto other people. In order to feed my need to impose, I have started a spin-off blog from Bite Me called feed me l.a.. I will be writing up on restaurant experiences from where to go to what to order. feed me l.a. is aimed at helping locals on a budget discover the variety of quality places this town has to offer. It also serves as a way for anyone visiting the area to find all the local spots. To put it simply, I am nosily looking to help you answer one simple question, "Where should we eat?"

Mama Mia

It was a nice quiet evening.

We turned on cheesy Italian music, lit the candles, tuned on the string lights on the porch, popped open a bottle of red wine and made some pizza pies.

You can make the dough yourself, but we bought it (along with the sauce) from a great pizza place in the area. We gathered plenty of fresh toppings from the grocery store and got to work. The look on Zach's face when he could not get his dough to spin on the end of his finger properly told me he would be much more content ordering in.

I say we did a good job. My stomach agrees.

Here are some tips for making your own pizza at home:

*Roll the dough out thinner than you think you should. It tends to puff up when it bakes.
*You do not need to bulk up the crust. Simply pinch the edges all the way around.
*Use your fingers to create small dents in the area the tomato sauce covers just to hold it in place.
*Don't skimp on the quality tomato sauce; it is the most important part.
*Use fresh mozzarella (kind that come packed in water in a plastic container). You can just cut it into slices and arrange them on top of the sauce.
*Use fresh toppings like onions, mushrooms, peppers, olives fresh basil and meats. Just pile them up under and on top of the cheese (mixing it up a bit)
*Get creative with fancy toppings such as pesto (in place of tomato sauce), goat cheese, feta cheese, artichokes, bacon or sun dried tomatoes.
*Bake a small pizza in the oven at 350 degrees F for about 15 minutes or until the crust seems toasted and cooked all the way through.
*If you do not have a pizza cutter, use kitchen scissors to slice right through; a knife might make a mess of the cheese and the toppings.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Souped Up

I have never liked soup.

Fast fast forward to my last trip to a little restaurant called “Lunch.” This is a new place in Culver City, recommended to Zach and me by LeAnna (of the Brunch Club’s “BreAnna”). She just started working there recently and told us to stop by. We usually do what we are told when it comes to new restaurants. We love trying new places around town. In fact one of my favorite things about LA is the fact that you can go to a different restaurant every day of your life and never have the need to repeat. Once you reached them all, there would be plenty of news ones that sprang up to allow you to start all over again. Anyway, we went to Lunch.

We sat at the charming deep counter in front of a huge widescreen television playing the Winter Olympics (cross country skiing to be specific). I love sharing a meal at the counter in a cozy restaurant. It was a cold rainy day which happens to be my least favorite kind of weather. The couple next to us were sharing a piping hot bowl of chunky chili. We each wanted to order our own things, but sharing a hot bowl of soup looked like a great idea. We decided to order the tomato basil soup; I got my own salad; he got his own sandwich. We sipped our sodas at the counter until the food was gone. To top it off, the server behind the counter asked us what kind of cookies we liked. He brought us a little plate of some chocolaty chocolate chip cookies that came with the meal at the end for a nice surprise. We chomped them as the cross country skiers worked their way across the big screen.

Sounds thrilling I know. The thing is, it was. I cannot explain the difference between a good and great restaurant experience any other way but by saying the great experiences are just so satisfying. It happens so rarely, but I know it when it happens. It doesn’t always have to do with the finest foods or the flawless service (although it certainly can). Much of it has to do with my mood matching the ambience and style of food at the restaurant. At lunch that day, everything just worked, and we will most definitely be back again and again.

I have also become a fan of tomato soup as a result of this outing. I don’t think I could make anything as good as the tomato soup we had that day. It was the perfect consistency and was bursting with flavor (very umami), but I was proud of my attempt with this recipe from Woman’s Health Magazine. It seems like a great basic recipe (which is what I am all about right now). We did the classic tomato soup and grilled cheese for dinner with a twist: hearty tomato soup (white cheddar sprinkled on top) and pressed white cheddar cheese sandwiches with bacon on a crispy baguette. Serve with a slice of Big Love Season 4 Finale on the tube.

Winter Tomato Soup

(recipe from Women's Health Magazine, serves 4 cups or 2 bowls)

1 tsp olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbsp no-salt-added tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp thyme
1 bay leaf
2 cans (14.5 oz each) no-salt-added diced tomatoes, including juice
1/4 c fat-free milk
2 Tbsp plain nonfat Greek-style yogurt

Heat olive oil in medium saucepan. Cook onion and garlic until soft, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste, sugar, thyme, bay leaf, tomatoes, and 1 cup water (recipe calls for 2 cups, but I used 1 cup...also it it a good idea to swish the water in the tomato cans to catch all the extra juices). Stir together and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 20 minutes.

Remove bay leaf. Use a handheld blender to puree the soup in the saucepan, or transfer soup to a food processor (this is what I used) or blender. Puree until smooth. (If you're using a standard blender, allow the mixture to cool first; hot liquid may cause the blender to squirt out contents. Depending on the size of your blender, you may have to do this in batches.)

Heat milk in microwave for 30 seconds to warm, and then stir it into the pureed soup along with yogurt. Mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Babies, Birthdays and Pretty Things

She's having a baby. Another baby.

My sister-in-law is having a third child in the fall. I will be an aunt for the third time. There is nothing more exciting than news such as this. A little person is going to enter the world into the best family he/she could possibly wish to be a part of. My brother and sister-in-law are amazing parents to two beautiful girls, and this child-on-the-way has got it made.

It is the mother-to-be's (again) birthday Wednesday, March 9th, and I wanted to make her something special. Ever since I was treated to a $38 apron (from a Christmas gift card to Anthropology), cooking has taken on a new, exciting form. It is fun to cook and bake in pretty things. Everyone should have the chance to do so, especially a mother of three! I decided to make a completely impractical apron for Katie for her birthday this year (it ties together in the back with a bulk of black tulle). Although I know she has about two or three aprons already, I cannot help thinking it is fun to mix it up sometimes.

I sew like I cook. I don't know what I am doing, but I use everything within my means to create the end result for which I am searching, a sort of make-it-happen attitude is involved. I hand-stitched this apron based on a pattern from one I already had along with some basic stitching skills I learned in a theatre costume class in college. I am sending it her way to Florida (surely a couple days late for the Wednesday birthday date). Happy Birthday, Katie! You are a best friend and an incredible mother to my nieces. I hope I can do half as good a job with your nieces someday.



Anti-Oscar Pasta

The Oscars were on TV tonight, not on the plate.

We are all familiar with the Oscars: the movie award ceremony that honors the best of each given category from best picture to best make-up to best original screenplay. What we all may not be so familiar with is the crab meat oscar.

A delicious innovation in the surf-n-turf section of many fine restaurant menus is the "oscar-style." You can order a "fillet oscar" or even "asparagus oscar" which simply means a small pile of crab-meat (sometimes with a tasty sauce) will come layered on top. It can be a nice upgrade to any meal depending on the establishment at which you choose to dine (although I prefer my steak to come unencumbered, no sauce, no sizzling butter, no oscar).

Since the Oscars were on TV last night, I decided to make the ultimate shellfish dish, 86 the oscar. This pasta involved clams, shrimp and crab meat in sight. It comes from a magazine, and no it is not Family Circle. Ok it may be from Family Circle, but I swear this is the last one in a while (mostly because I have exhausted all the recipes from last month's issue). Oh, and the Oscars were fun to watch too. Some highlights for me included:

*The opening dialogue between Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.
*The straight-faced George Clooney throughout the opening dialogue between Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.
*The many Meryl Streep references including the one about her being a good kisser.
*Everything involving my new love, Penelope Cruz.

Enough With the Oscars Shell Fish Fettuccine:

(recipe from Family Circle Magazine - makes 4 servings)

2 tbsp olive oil
3/4 lb scallops
3/4 lb large shrimp, shelled and deveined
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
2 C fat-free half-and-half
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 can (6.5 ounces) chopped clams, undrained (I drained about 1/2 of the juice)
1 C shredded Swiss Gruyere cheese blend
2 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 box (12 ounces) spinach fettuccine, cooked following package directions
Directions (well, I used a 9oz non-spinach FRESH fettuccine pasta and it was just fine...I did throw some spinach leaves into the mix for added color which turned out wonderfully...fresh pasta can usually be found in the refrigerated section near the cheeses in most grocery stores)

Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
Coat a 3-1/2-quart oval dish with nonstick cooking spray (I used my trusty huge iron skillet so I could do everything in the same dish).
Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add scallops, shrimp, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and the pepper.
Cook for 2 minutes per side. Remove to a plate.
Blend half-and-half and cornstarch. Bring to a simmer in the skillet.
Simmer 1 minute. Take off heat and stir in clams and the juices, 1/2 cup of the cheese, the tarragon, cayenne and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt (this is where I mixed in the whole, fresh spinach leaves).
Add cooked shellfish and toss with fettuccine.
Spoon into prepared dish (or in my case, leave it in the oven-safe iron skillet). Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 C cheese.
Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes.

Enjoy with a gin martini and a night at the Oscars.

I know I said it makes four servings, but let's makes that three servings okay?