Monday, March 26, 2007

Espresso and Granola on a Monday Morning

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Seems fitting for a gloomy Monday doesn't it? Two great things to start the day off right.

First off, please excuse me while I take a minute to rave about my Nespresso D90 Espresso machine. A couple of months ago, I sampled a shot from one of these machines at Bloomingdales and I was hooked. The coffee was excellent, and the machine reminded me of something I saw in Paris years ago - when these things were still years away from hitting the U.S. market. The deal on Amazon was an open box machine for about 1/3 off the price and no tax (the same way I got my KitchenAid mixer!) I was a little worried that it was too good to be true, but I've had no problems. I use it every day at work - usually to make a double and sometimes a triple if it's a particularly rough day! The only drawback, is that you have to order the capsules from the Nespresso website, and they are .49 apiece. I don't consider that to be too bad, since I would probably order 2-3 bucks worth of coffee a day if I had to go downstairs or to a coffee bar, and Extraordinary Desserts - the only place within striking distance for a good espresso - charges about $4.00 for a double. (I know!!)

I've also been meaning to post about this recipe for one of my new favorite things to make at home. I've become a huge fan of Orangette since I first ran across it last year, and I've found lots of great recipes in Molly's trove titled "Les Recettes d'Orangette." One of them is a recipe for homemade granola, based on the recipe from Rancho la Puerta, a famous spa just south of the border here. It's crunchy, not too sweet and very satisfying - a perfect breakfast.
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The first time I made it, I didn't have exactly the ingredients on hand that were called for, but I did a little substituting with pretty good success. I've found that the real trick is to bake it for the right amount of time - too little and it won't get crunchy - too long and it tastes a little too "toasted." My oven is famously unreliable, so I usually get some burned edges no matter what.

Since the first effort I've tried a few variations and they've all been good. I've added chopped candied ginger, tried slivered and sliced almonds (the sliced are crunchier) substituted agave nectar for some of the honey and varied the seasonings a bit. I also like to add a cup of dried currants. Surprisingly they don't dry out too much in the long baking time. I've been trying to figure out how to get more orange flavor into it - despite the addition of orange zest, juice and even a little orange oil - it seems to disappear. Still I keep trying, and I like that each batch is a little different from the next. It's really good with Trader Joe's organic plain yogurt, or milk.

Molly's original version and the method can be found here.

Enjoy and Happy Monday!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Amore in La Mesa - Antica Trattoria

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It's always a good sign when a New Yorker (especially an Italian one) tells you about a restaurant. They will drive far and wide for the best pizza, pasta, steak or whatever else, and tell everyone they know about it once they've found it. It was a couple of years ago when I first heard about Antica Trattoria from my friend Anthony from the Bronx. I'm not sure what took us so long to get there - but we finally found the occasion to visit for James' father's birthday last week. Don and Jan live in Santee, and we thought they especially would appreciate the discovery of a good restaurant in the East County. (Make that the "woefully-underserved-when-it-comes-to-restaurants" East County.)

Antica Trattoria is located on the Northern end of a large strip mall on the corner of Lake Murray and Baltimore Drive. It's actually pretty attractive for an older mall - with dark wood and rambling sheltered walkways. Only a few tables were occupied when we walked in at 7:30 PM, and we were greeted effusively by our server and host, both of whom had strong Italian accents - generally a good sign. The owner was gracious and welcoming - chatting among the tables and getting to know the customers as if we were his guests.
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The extensive menu is divided, according to Italian tradition, into antipasti, pasta and secondi - the latter being main courses. We started with the mixed antipasti -which was a platter heaped with salumi, caprese salad with fresh mozzarella, calamari fritti, grilled vegetables, and bruschetta. The only problem was that the tomatoes they had sourced that day were almost completely tasteless - pale and hard as rocks. We scarfed it down nonetheless, but I suspect on a different day the caprese and bruschetta would be much better.

We also shared a special appetizer that night, a large portobello mushroom cap stuffed with lobster and crab, and baked. It was very good (though rich), and just the right size for all four of us to have a taste.
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For the main course, I chose Chicken Parmesan. I was presented with a whole butterflied chicken breast that had been lightly breaded, fried and topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. It was fantastic - the meat was tender, and the sauce was light and flavorful. Underneath were slices of grilled vegetables. James chose Pollo Modenese and Jan had the Marsala. Both were good, with the chicken bathed in a rich, winey sauce. Their chicken was not quite as tender as mine - no doubt because it was sauteed rather than fried. Don went a different route, with the Linguine Pescatore.
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This was a gorgeous plate of pasta and seafood - definitely the dish I will try on my return trip.

They have a wonderul espresso machine, and they know how to use it. I finished the meal with a perfect shot, and James had a cappuccino. The espresso was served in a cute little Ferrari cup - I wish I had thought to take a picture. For dessert, we ordered cannoli and a creme brulee to share. The creme brulee had a nice crust - but the custard itself had a boozy flavor that I wasn't crazy about. I'm not absolutely sure, but I suspect it might have actually been made from a mix. Instead of one cannoli - the owner brought us four mini ones, so we would each have our own. These were freshly filled and crisp, and just the right size for an after dinner bite of something sweet.

The prices are very reasonable - entrees are in the range of $15.00 - $20.00, meaning you could eat for $50.00 bare bones, or $75.00 the way we usually do it, with wine, dessert, espresso, etc. We ordered two bottles of wine - a bottle of Prosecco that was around $30.00, and a wonderful Chianti that was about $40.00 - pictured above. (It was our server's suggestion.)

By the end of the meal we had done a bit of chatting with the owner and our server - and they bade us goodbye with hugs. (How often does that happen these days?) We don't eat out too terribly often, and we often feel like there are so many restaurants and so little time, but we will definitely make our way back to this one. As we left - James said he almost wished we lived even closer so we could become regulars. If you know him (he hates to leave the house) you know that is really saying something!

Antica Trattoria
5654 Lake Murray Drive
La Mesa, CA 91942
(619) 463-9919

Dinner - M-Su 4:30 to 10:00 PM
Lunch - Tues - Fri - 11:30 to 2:30

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Zuni Chicken, So-Cal Style

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It's almost impossible to go wrong with a crispy-skinned roasted chicken - and in my experience, nothing sets off the flavor of that chicken like Zuni's Cafe's bread salad. I've never had it at the restaurant, but the first time I made it, I followed the ridiculously specific directions to a "t" - with delicious results. My only complaints, if you could call them that, were that the dish seemed a bit more fattening than it needed to be to taste good, and there weren't enough greens. (I guess maybe those are related, actually.)

I "fixed" these issues in the subsequent times I've made this dish, and this time I went even a little bit further - adding a couple of my favorite local ingredients - lemon and avocado. In true laid-back Southern California style, this recipe is a little lighter, a little simpler and a little easier than it's Nor Cal cousin, but at least in my opinion, it's every bit as delicious.

I didn't want to mess with the elements that give the salad it's essential character - the slivered green onions and garlic, the combination of red wine and champagne vinegar, the chicken drippings, and the currants and pine nuts. For the bread though, I used some leftover torta rolls that I bought at El Pescador earlier this week - and I went with a balance of slightly more greens than bread. I added the squeeze of lemon juice to brighten it up, and tossed in chunks of just-ripe avocado at the very end. When everthing was ready, I carved the chicken up and tossed it all together with the salad in a large wooden bowl. It's truly the definition of a one dish meal - with the protein, bread and salad all in one.

To lighten it, I toasted the bread without oiling it, and used more greens and a little less chicken drippings than called for. I didn't notice the difference at all - but these things can, of course, be adjusted to taste.

So-Cal Style Zuni Chicken Salad
adapted from the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco

You just can't improve the method for brining and roasting the chicken. I put mine in the fridge to brine when I left for work, and roasted it when I got home. I also used a 4 and a half pound chicken - which is larger than she recommends, but it worked just fine. Other than that I followed exactly the same method I used before.

A 3.5 to 4.5 pound chicken, (use the roasting directions here)
2 large telera rolls or torta rolls, sliced in half lengthwise
4 cloves of garlic, slivered
4 -5 scallions, diagonally sliced - including some green part
olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup currants
red wine vinegar
a little hot water
champagne vinegar
half a lemon
1 large ripe avocado, diced
salt and pepper
3-4 large handfuls of tender bitter greens - arugula, baby romaine, escarole, etc.

After the chicken goes in the oven, trim the crusty tops of the torta rolls so that they are flat, and toast them until they are golden brown and dry. Stack them on a cutting board and cut them into rough one inch squares, then put them in the salad bowl.

Place the currants in a small bowl with a little hot water and enough red wine vinegar to just cover them. Set aside and allow to soften.

Cook the slivered garlic and onion in small skillet with a little olive oil until soft and translucent. Add to the bread, along with the pine nuts, and toss.

When the chicken is about fifteen minutes from coming out of the oven, add the currants and most of their vinegar into the mix, and drizzle with champagne vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil to taste. Toss to coat. Add the greens and toss again.

When the chicken comes out of the oven, drizzle some of the the hot pan juices from the chicken over the bread and greens and toss again. The greens may wilt, so add more as needed. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt, pepper and vinegar. The bread should be crisp and chewy, rather than soggy. Just before serving, add the avocado and toss gently, then place the chicken on top.

Devour with cold white wine (with your fingers if no one's watching!)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

So nice they get posted (about) twice... The Doughnut Muffins!

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When I first wrote about these muffins, back in the early summer of last year, they were part of a larger post, and I didn't include the recipe - just a link to the post on Orangette where I found it, but these have become such a favorite in this house that I really think they deserve another mention.

Whenever I have made these, it has always been for entertaining, and I have always needed more than 12 (the yield of Molly's recipe.) The first time, I finished the first batch, realized the problem, and and turned right around and made a second. After a little tooling around, I found the original recipe from Kathleen Stewart of the Downtown Bakery and Creamery in Healdsburg - which yields 24 muffins. Molly coats hers with powdered sugar, but I had actually had something similar before, covered with granulated sugar and cinnamon - which is what I used. We've tried them both ways now, and I prefer the granulated sugar, just by a whisker. Somehow it gives them a nicer crusty crunch - which is a good contrast with the tender cakey muffin. I do think it might be fun to use powdered sugar infused with lemon zest, or play around with the flavorings a bit, but it would be hard to improve on the original. I use a little less cinnamon in mine than the recipe recommends - and I found that it called for too much butter, sugar and cinnamon for the rolling - so I've pared the amounts down a bit to avoid waste.

I'm not sure these are actually any better for you than an actual doughnut - once they are dipped in butter and rolled in sugar, but they're pretty easy to make, a little less messy - and they will keep longer than doughnuts. They make a great brunch treat for company - they're easy to eat (while you're finishing the rest of the food) wonderful with coffee, and more than a little bit special.

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Doughnut Muffins
Adapted from Kathleen Stewart, of the Downtown Bakery and Creamery (and Jimtown Store) with thanks to Molly for bringing them to my attention!

For the muffins:

12 oz. (24 Tbs.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1-3/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature
1 lb. 11 oz. (6 cups) all-purpose flour, sifted
1 Tbs. plus 2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1-3/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground nutmeg (the fresher the better)
1-2/3 cups milk
1/4 cup buttermilk

For dipping:
6 oz. (10 Tbs.) unsalted butter - more as needed
2 cups sugar
1 Tbs. ground cinnamon

To make the muffins:
In a large bowl, either sift together the, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg - or sift the flour and whisk in the other ingredients. Grease and flour two 12 muffin tins (I used baking spray.)

Place the oven racks in the in the top and bottom thirds of the oven, and heat the oven to 350°F.

In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and beat until well blended. Combine the milk and buttermilk in a measuring cup.

With the mixer on its lowest setting, incorporate a quarter of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture. Then add a third of the milk mixture. Scraping the bowl down as needed - continue gently mixing in the remaining dry and wet ingredients alternately, ending with the dry. Mix until well combined and smooth, but avoid mixing too much after the flour is added.

Scoop enough batter into each tin so that the top of the batter is just about even with the rim of the cup, about 1/2 cup. Bake the muffins until firm to the touch, 30 to 35 min. (They won't brown very much.) If you like you can test one with a wooden pick or skewer.

To finish:
Melt the butter for the dipping mixture. Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a medium sized deep bowl. When the muffins are cool enough to handle, remove them from the tin and brush them generously with the melted butter. Roll them around in the bowl of cinnamon sugar and shake off the excess. (Assembly line pictured above.)

Stack high on a platter, and serve!

Friday, March 09, 2007

New Obsessions - March, 2007

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  1. Shopping for outdoor furniture.
  2. Hand letterpressed cards from India Ink- for birthdays, weddings, babies, my one true love, etc.
  3. K Sandwiches - Mmmmm....Iced Vietnamese Coffee and BBQ Pork Bahn Mi....
  4. The Proenza Schouler collection at Target (though it's almost gone now.)
  5. Shopping at the local ethnic markets - Northgate, Mitsuwa, etc.
  6. Shopping at People's Organic Foods in OB.
  7. Figuring out where to eat during my 3 days in San Francisco in April - Boulevard? Zuni? Range? Tartine? The Ferry Building? So many choices so little time!
  8. My Nespresso D90 espresso machine (I got a screaming deal on Amazon and I use it every day at work, with the Roma cartridges.)
  9. Checking out the Guild - the new restaurant/art gallery in Logan Heights.
  10. Haagen Dazs Extra Rich Light Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream
  11. Lean Cuisine Brick Oven pizzas, (especially the bbq chicken and garlic chicken.)
  12. The butterscotch creme brulee (and everything else I've tried) at Jayne's Gastropub.
  13. Hot Chocolate (Chuao's Abuela is my favorite.)
  14. Eggs for dinner - on a salad with chicory, lardons and mustard vinaigrette!
  15. Going to the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena.
  16. Second hand and salvage shopping at Rocky's and Urban Seed and Garden in University Heights, The Bungalow Store and Architectural Salvage on India, and Newport Avenue in OB. (Oh, and a burger at Hodad's while in OB!)
  17. Venturing out downtown at lunchtime - lots of hits, some misses.
  18. Planning our trip to Santa Barbara and Big Sur in October (we scaled back from Spain.)
  19. Making new jewelry for spring and summer.
  20. Gourmet Doughnuts, like these.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Winter Weekend at Big Cat Cabin

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Recently, we spent a weekend at one of our favorite local get-away spots, the Big Cat Cabin in Julian. Back in August, we stayed in a different cabin on the same property - called the Artist's Loft. (You can read about that trip here.) It was fantastic, but huge - with an open loft living room, two master suites (each with its own jacuzzi tub for two!) and open kitchen with an O'Keefe and Merritt Stove, handmade wood cabinets and countertops, and everything you could possible need for whipping up a gourmet feast.
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We had a wonderful time at the other cabin with our friends, but for this trip, we decided to go with a cozier "cabin built for two." Of the two smaller cabins available (the other is Strawberry Hill) we chose the Big Cat Cabin - which sits overlooking a ridge on the far side of the property. Big Cat was built in the twenties, and the owners believe it was designed by the prominent local architect Richard Requa. All of the stones in the huge stone fireplace were scavenged from the area's local volcanic rock, and there are several Indian artifacts buried within - including the molcajete - or grinding bowl - at the base (visible above).
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The cabin is perfectly sized, with a large open living room and kitchen, large bedroom with kingsized bed and wooded bath with clawfoot tub. All of the door latches are handmade from leather straps and levers, and the stove is a vintage Wedgewood (there is an even older vintage Wedgewood woodburning stove that serves as extra counter space - pictured above). There is an inviting leather sofa for sinking into in front of the fire, and a lovely window seat with picture windows that overlook the valley and evening sunsets. On the back of the cabin is a view porch that would be a perfect place to enjoy evening cocktails in the warmer months. In the summer, the owners also provide lounge chairs and a hammock on the surrounding grounds - which feel isolated and private despite the fact that you are in the Pine Hills subdivision.
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The weekend we visited was the coldest the owners said they had experienced since they purchased the property in the late 80s. Since the cabin is just that - a cabin - we were "forced" (oh no!) to keep the fire going in the large stone fireplace all day and night. Sleeping was no problem at all with the electric blankets on the bed - and we used the oven on the Wedgewood stove to make up the difference. We baked our own Julian Pie, and on the second day we braised a long-cooking roast.
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We ventured out for a nature walk at the nearby Heise Park - but the roads to the trails were closed for the winter, and I didn't have the hat and gloves that I would need for a long walk given that the temperatures were in the high teens.

From there, we went to lunch at the Wynola Pizza Express (which I am sad to report, was very mediocre) and wine tasting at Orfila. We bought a case of their most recent Merlot release - which we had tasted at a party at the release party just a few weeks earlier. James' family had bought some "Merlot Futures" and they had a reception for the purchasers to celebrate.
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After that it was back to the cabin, for more lounging on that leather sofa, and a nap for James. While he dozed, I spied wild turkeys and deer just outside the window and took photos.
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We packed most of our own food, some lentil soup for the first night, breakfast fixings, and the ingredients for a roast for the second night - the recipe was based on "Coffee Braised Beef with Cinnamon and Orange." from Gourmet. I first saw this recipe mentioned on Kady's blog, Gourmetish - and thought it sounded good, and I knew there wouldn't be much to do at the cabin but cook, so I thought it would be the perfect time to try it.
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Pictured above is my "mise en place" - coffee, cinnamon stick and orange peel strips, onion, the meat (an organic roast from Whole Foods) and brussel sprouts - (which would have been fantastic if I hadn't overcooked them while waiting for the roast to finish!) I cooked the roast in the largest heaviest pot I could find, which would have worked except that the lid wasn't tight enough. It didn't seem to me that the recipe called for nearly enough liquid in the first place - only 1 1/4 cups of coffee. According to the Cooks Illustrated people, a braised roast should be at least halfway submerged at the start, since some of the liquid will evaporate even with a tight-fitting lid. With the way this thing leaked steam, I had to keep adding liquid throughout the cooking. I added red wine, orange juice, beef broth and water - and it still cooked down to nothing before the roast was nearly done.

It also took an hour longer than it should have to cook, because I had a hard time regulating the oven temperature in the antique Wedgewood gas oven. Unfortunately, the timing problems threw me off on my brussel sprouts, and I wound up burning them to a crisp. It was too bad, becasue they would have been brilliant if I'd been able to serve them when they were done. I found a little well-seasoned cast iron skillet in the cupboard, into which I put the sprouts - tossed with a little balsamic vinegar, oil and salt and pepper. I roasted them for about 20 minutes, at which point they were perfect. I took them out for a while, then put them back in when I thought the roast was getting close, but alas it was not. We did have some good mashed potatoes, and the meat was edible, if not delicious. Ultimately I thought the recipe, though it looked promising, was a bit of a disappointment - not to mention the issues with the oven. (Next time, I think I'll stick to stove-top cooking!)
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Food -related misadventures aside, we had a great relaxing weekend, and I highly recommend this place for anyone looking to get away from it all, in an artistic and relaxing environment. We will definitely be back!