Monday, June 28, 2010

Pie Crust, Porchetta and Peonies - Story of a Dinner Party

Garden Dinner Party 6.12.10

Dinner in the Garden

Fried Artichokes
La Quercia Prosciutto
Castelvetrano Olives
Parmesan Reggiano

Andrew's Little Gem Lettuce Salads with Green Goddess Dressing
Porchetta Sandwiches with Arugula and Pickled Red Onions
Pickled Carrots and Wax Beans
Potato Gratin
French Potato Salad
Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir

Strawberry, Fig and Frangipane, Nectarine Frangipane and Cherry Frangipane Galettes
Whipped cream with Creme Fraiche

Garden Dinner Party 6.12.10

I kind of have to confess - when we put in our garden last year, we planned it to be as much a place to throw parties as a place to grow things. We put wide bark-strewn paths between the boxes for easy strolling, and made sure the center aisle was large enough for a long table with chairs on either side. Eventually we're hoping to put in a wood burning oven and food prep space and make this a regular thing. Luckily, San Diego allows for that during most of the year. The garden is actually coming along pretty nicely on the growing things side too - we have sage coming out of our ears (seriously, need any?) cherry peppers, strawberries, fennel, kale, carrots, radishes, thyme, lettuces, artichokes, herbs and hopefully, eventually, tomatoes. It looks like we're also going to have a bumper crop of both Meyer and Eureka lemons this year.
Garden Dinner Party 6.12.10

I decorated the table with arrangements of peonies, roses and hydrangeas that I picked up at Whole Foods and arranged in Ball jars. It's a good time for flowers in early June - there were lots of beautiful choices, and they lasted a few days since the weather wasn't too hot. We rented the tables, chairs and linens (except the placemats) from Raphael's party rentals. James set the table, and considering he usually pretends not to know what side of the plate the fork goes on, I thought he did an excellent job. Must be his country club waiter experience coming to the fore. ;)
Marc and Kenny swapping drinks...

We started the evening with some aperitifs - I put bottles of St. Germain, Aperol and Lillet on the bar along with some Plymouth Gin, and champagne. I mixed a few of my favorite Aperol cocktails and we did a little experimenting. At the very least, you can never go wrong with a glass of sparkling wine with a splash of Aperol or St. Germain.
Carciofi Fritti - fresh from the fryer - with lemon  & sea salt

I was determined to do some cooking in the garden, so we set up a deep fryer and fried these artichokes on the spot, alla Romana. Trimming them was a little bit of work, but they were worth it. We sprinkled them with a drizzle of lemon juice and some salt - some aioli would be even better.
Little Gem Lettuce Salads with Green Goddess dressing - courtesy of Andrew Spurgin

The salads - our first seated course - were prepared by our friend (and guest) Andrew Spurgin of Waters Catering. He prepared them on site - slicing heads of little gem lettuces in half, sprinkling them with herbs, pea shoots, baby tomatoes, sharp cheese and croutons, then drizzling them with his own rich tarragon-spiked Green Goddess dressing.
Garden Dinner Party 6.12.10

With dinner we poured one of my favorite rose wines, Robert Sinskey's Vin Gris of Pinot Noir. I first tasted it on a rare hot night in San Francisco at the now-defunct Tallula in the Castro and fell in love. The Weck jars on the table held homemade pickled onions, wax beans and carrots - the carrots were from the garden, the beans from Suzie's Farm and the onions from Sage Mountain.

The main course, the porchetta, was made with a whole pork belly and shoulder, purchased from Homegrown Meats. I rubbed the meat with kosher salt, and then coated it with a paste of garlic, salt, parsley, olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, ground red pepper, ground coriander and black pepper. The shoulder was wrapped in the belly, tied and allowed to dry in the fridge for a day before cooking - then slow roasted. We sliced it and piled it on Bread & Cie buns with the pickled onions and some arugula tossed with olive oil and lemon. On the side was a potato gratin, made with gruyere, chives and cream (it was kind of a chilly evening) and a French potato salad with an herb vinaigrette. There was a point where I was concerned about the gratin, so I made the potato salad as a backup - they were both eaten, so I guess it was a good thing!
To me?  Why thank you!
Dessert was an assortment of four galettes. I made the pastry dough earlier in the week, and rolled and filled it that morning. We had strawberry, fig and frangipane with figs from a friends tree, cherry frangipane, and a nectarine frangipane. I also whipped some cream with a little creme fraiche to top them - inspired by the delicious strawberry galette with creme fraiche ice cream currently on the dessert menu at Cafe Chloe.

Recipes coming soon!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How to Cook Bacon

This may seem ridiculously basic to some of you, but bear with me here...

Like pie crust, rice, and poached eggs, consistently crisp bacon is one of those basic things that eluded me as a cook for longer than I'd like to admit. The pie crust post had me thinking about sharing techniques, and as I was cooking the bacon for breakfast on Sunday, I wondered if some of you out there might benefit from what I've learned. As with the pie crust, there are just a few steps and the secrets are simple, but the payoff is huge.

1. Start with a good quality, thick-cut bacon. Put it in a cold pan and turn the stove on to medium heat. Letting it warm slowly renders the fat out of the bacon, so that it cooks in the fat in addition to the direct heat of the pan itself. Keep it on medium until it starts to sizzle and look translucent. (I use a seasoned cast iron or non-stick skillet - if you're using a regular stainless steel one it's even more important to start it out slowly to avoid sticking.)

2. Turn the heat up a little, but not too high. Medium to medium-high is best. If you cook it at too high a temperature, the bacon will curl and twist, which reduces the surface area in contact with the pan. If it does that, turn the heat down a bit and flatten it back out.

3. Only turn it once and turn it late - when it's almost cooked through. The bacon will start to curl downwards slightly - sort of upside-side down cupping. (If you turn it too soon you can turn it back over once, but no more than that.)

4. Cook it until it's almost completely crisp in the pan but not quite. It will become crisp when it drains and cools a bit. If it's completely crisp in the pan, it will probably be overcooked by the time it cools.
It may sound a little weird, but with a little practice, you can actually cook bacon by sound. It shouldn't pop and hiss too much - if it does the heat is probably too high. You can also hear when it's ready to flip because it starts to get a little quieter.

Contrary to what you might think, it doesn't make any difference how much you put in the pan - you can crowd it in there all the way up the sides of the skillet, and it will all still cook up crisp in the rendered fat. Same with a second batch of bacon - since there is already fat in the pan, the second batch will be ok even though it's started in a hot pan.

I'm going to assume that you already know to drain the bacon on paper towels and keep it warm in the oven until you're ready to serve it. ;) I am also going to assume that you know to always make more than you think you will need, because your husband/friend/wife/dog/whatever will be happy to unburden you of whatever extra you may have. I have never had to figure out what to do with leftover bacon.

A few words about the bacon itself:
American bacon is cured meat from the belly of the beast, by which of course I mean the pig. In other parts of the world, bacon can mean meat from the back or rib portion of the animal.

There are vast differences in the types of bacon available. Since we in the Q. Foodie household eat bacon only sparingly (about once a week or so) we splurge on the good stuff. I really like Pederson's uncured bacon, available at Whole Foods (and pictured above.) It tastes better and is raised in more sustainable and humane conditions than the usual supermarket brands. Before I discovered Pederson's, I bought uncured Niman Ranch at Trader Joes. It is produced by various and assorted farms and ranches under the Niman Ranch label. Producers must meet their standards, and provide a certain "quality of life" for their animals, if you will. In San Diego, the Linkery and Homegrown Meats also sell sustainably raised, locally produced bacon.

If you are wondering why I specify uncured bacon, this post on the NY Times Well Blog is a must-read. It sheds light on the possible health effects of nitrites, sodium and other preservatives found in cured meats, and makes a very strong case for choosing the right product and eating it in moderation.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Pie Crust, Conquered.

Before this weekend, I cannot tell you how many times I tried to make pie crust and had it turn out crappy. It was tough and chewy, it shrank and slumped down into the pan, even with the weights in place. Eventually, I just gave up. I didn't make a lot of pies. When I had to, I used Pillsbury pie crust mix or those refrigerated ready made ones at Traders Joes. This summer though, with pie season looming - I decided it was time to finally, once and for all - master this essential baking skill.

Pie crust is one of those things that people think you have to be some sort of baking genius (or somebody's grandma) to make, but it's not actually all that difficult. The most important thing is not to be intimidated, and to understand why you are doing what you're doing. In baking that really is the key - the why, not the how.

So, how did I figure it out? I hauled out the Joy of Cooking, my favorite all-around go-to cookbook - and I followed their instructions step by step. Or at least, by looking at their step by step instructions, I figured out what I had been doing wrong all this time.
There are three essential steps to pie crust making - blending the butter and the flour mixture together, binding the dough with a little bit of water, and resting it for at least half an hour. During all of this time, it is essential that the dough stays chilled to keep the butter firm. The flaky, tender texture comes from having those butter bits melt in the oven - pushing the flour up and away.

Though the Joy of Cooking recipe called for a pastry blender, I decided to rub the butter into the flour by hand. The goal is to thoroughly coat the flour with the butter, leaving some larger pieces to create little pockets of steam. The rubbed-in butter gives the crust tenderness, while the bits of butter make it flaky. Your hands are the perfect tool for this - and it's fun.

The next step of the recipe calls for adding a small amount of ice water to the dough - just enough, not too much or the crust will be tough thanks to the formation of glutens, proteins in the flour. The just enough depends on a number of factors - the moisture already in the flour, the ambient moisture in the air, the water content of your butter, etc. Still, it all sounds trickier than it is. Just make yourself a little glass of ice water, and add a bit at a time until the dough holds together when pressed together. This is where I was going wrong all this time. I was just adding enough water so that it would come together in a ball on its own. I was also giving it a knead or two - what the French supposedly do, but I've now learned. Non. Do not try it. It will only make your crust tough.

When you've added the right amount of water, and the dough is willing to come together, but not so moist that it's sticky or smooth, take it out of your bowl, shape it into a flat disk, and wrap it in plastic. Refrigerate it for at least half an hour - or even longer. Then you're ready to roll it out. Before we get into the rolling and baking though, let's go ahead and look at the actual recipe. Here it is, as I modified it from the Joy of Cooking's original method:
Garden Dinner Party 6.12.10
Flaky Pastry Dough
adapted from the Joy of Cookingmakes two standard sized 9 inch crusts - enough for two single crust pies, or one double crust pie.

2 1/2 cups organic all purpose flour (measured with the scoop and level method)
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar (preferably bakers sugar or superfine)
1 generous teaspoon flaky sea salt, rubbed between your fingers
2 sticks of cold organic butter (The higher the butterfat content, the better. I use Strauss)

1/2 cup ice water plus 1-2 Tablespoons (you probably won't use it all)

To prepare the butter, slice it into 1/4 inch pieces, then dice crosswise until you have uniform pieces about 1/2 an inch square.

Place the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl and mix thoroughly with a whisk or fork.

Add the butter to the bowl and toss lightly to coat it with flour, then start flattening each piece between your fingers. Once you've flattened all the pieces, continue to pinch and rub the butter and flour together between your fingers - picking up plenty of flour to avoid any sticking or melting. As you work, periodically stir the dry flour up from the bottom of the bowl and toss the whole mixture lightly. Continue pinching and rubbing the butter and flour together and lightly tossing the mixture until you have a mixture that looks like coarse breadcrumbs with about 10% -15% pea-sized or smaller pieces. It should feel soft and light, not greasy or heavy.

Drizzle the half cup of ice water over the mixture all at once, and using a spatula or large wooden spoon, stir the water into the mixture and start to gather it together - it will start to form small balls about an inch across. Stir just enough to incorporate the water evenly. When you feel like the water has been absorbed, gather the mixture together gently with your hands and push down on it. If it seems dry or crumbly and falls apart easily, add a tiny bit more water and mix it in lightly with your hand. The finished product should seem rough and a bit dry - but it should hold together reasonably well. Don't add too much water or overwork the dough though. If it gets sticky or elastic, you have formed glutens and your crust will be tough. *Note* - if you are doubling this recipe, you may not need exactly twice the amount of water - it's not necessarily going to take twice as much to get the flour moist enough. I'd pour in 1/2 to 3/4 cup, then go by feel from there.

Gather the finished dough into two equally sized pieces, flatten them gently into disks about 1 1/2 inches thick, and refrigerate for at least thirty minutes.

Now let's talk about the rolling and the baking. The key here, I think - is patience. It may take a while for your dough to soften enough to roll. On the other hand, if it's warm in the kitchen - it might get too soft, and you might have to wait for it to chill down to start again. It's just the way it goes, and you'll never be sorry you spent the extra time to get it right.

Rolling the dough is pretty straightforward. You want the dough to be chilled but pliable - if it's too cold it will be hard to roll evenly, and will be prone to cracking and breaking. If it's too warm, you'll lose your nice chunks of butter in there, and it will stick badly. When you can bend your flattened disk without breaking it - it's ready.

Put a small amount of flour on your smooth surface (too much is better than too little, especially if you're just starting out) and start rolling from the center out to the edges, trying to maintain an even round shape. Try to push the dough away from the center, out toward the edges, rather than pushing down. Dust excess flour off of the top of the dough, and check continuously to make sure it's not sticking - a spatula is good for this. Flip it over once or twice while rolling to evenly distribute the flour on both sides, dusting off the excess on top as you roll. (Otherwise you'll have a ton on one side and none on the other.)

When it's a little thicker than 1/4 inch, check to see if it will fill out your pan. (For half of this recipe, stick with a plain, 9 inch metal pie pan - most ceramic and glass pans are larger or deeper than that and you'll need more dough.) To transfer the dough, lay it across your rolling pin and set it in the pan. You shouldn't have to stretch it to cover the edges, but you might have to trim it to fit. If it isn't perfectly shaped, can use a little water to pinch some trimmed pieces in to fill in patches (I had to do this with both of mine.) Forming a decorative edge is a bit beyond what we're doing here - but you can push in with one finger on one side and pinch on the other side to create a ruffled edge, or use a fork to create a pattern. There are some good examples and illustrations in the Joy of Cooking if you have a copy.

If you're baking the crust right away for filling, put the finished crust in the fridge for another half hour before baking, and start preheating your oven to 400 degrees.

If you are baking a filled two crust pie, you can just use the chilled prepared crust as directed in your recipe.

To blind bake the crust for filling later, place the crust on a baking sheet, line it with foil - making sure the edges are covered when the foil is flat against the crust, and fill it with beans or ceramic pie weights - pushing them to the edges. (I used weights.) Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the edges start to turn golden. Remove the weights and the foil, prick the crust all over with a fork to prevent puffing, and bake another 10 minutes - until it turns a nice deep golden brown. Cool on a rack for at least thirty minutes or so. When the crust is cool, it's ready for filling.

I did Lemon Meringue and German Chocolate pies - pictured above. The Lemon Meringue recipe from the Joy of Cooking and is sublime. (I used their Soft Meringue method No. 1 and it worked perfectly.) The German Chocolate recipe was good too, but the recipe needs a little work. It was too dark, and just tasted like pudding - I was hoping for something with a little more of a buttery flavor - like the pie they used to serve at Furr's Cafeterias (and maybe they still do.) When I figure it out, I'll let you know!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant - San Diego

Oh my word, how did it get to be Thursday? I think that thing is happening where the older I get, the faster time flies. Now that I'm 40, it's whizzing by with rocket-like abandon. I do have to say though, the wait for this restaurant to open did seem to stretch on. I thought it was a fabulous idea from the moment I heard about it - an affordable urban gastropub/bistro from the people behind Market. I was even more excited when I heard Rachel Going would be doing the desserts. She's amazing. Really. I wish she would open a cafe/bakery - I would be there every. single. day. I'd also have to pay every penny I earn to my personal trainer to keep it from showing.
The restaurant is located in the old Modus location, at the corner of Fourth and Ivy - just a few blocks away from Cucina Urbana. If you remember what it looked like before you'll be blown away by it now. They've opened up the space to create an airy, industrial-modern interior. All traces of the original hard-edged darkness that was Modus have evaporated. It's most pleasant when there's some daylight outside - since it floods the room with a soothing light. After sundown the dining room gets a little dark, and the candles on the tables don't quite cut the mustard. You'll have to forgive me for these iPhone photos. I took my real camera to my second visit, but it was too hopelessly dark for pictures.
Terryl Gavre, owner of Cafe 222 and one of the partners (remember her fun waffle-lady billboard in Hillcrest?) did the interior design, and designed and built this living succulent wall herself. It's really beautiful and adds a lot to the space. I also love the industrial-chic doors and windows and the mismatched flea market chairs.
Then of course, there is the food. The menu is short and sweet and features a lot of familiar favorites. In the starter category, the deviled eggs - which I have had twice - feature the punchy flavors of parmesan, bacon, arugula, capers and lemon. The saltiness and sourness become a bit much after a few bites though - and I like my food salty & sour as a general rule. The powdered lemon seasoning on the potatoes is, in my opinion, a little too strong.
The potatoes with the fish & chips were perfectly fried and crisp, but suffered the same problem. I also think British style chips (thick cut fries) would actually work better with this dish. The crisps are a fun idea - I get it - but the textures (and flavor) just work better in the traditional combination. The fish was just fine, and the little cup of house made tartar sauce was good, but the tiny pile of coleslaw (almost hidden here) seemed like an afterthought.
After the fish & chips we moved on to the Baby Lettuce and Vegetable Salad with Peas, Green Beans and Parmesan Cheese, which I neglected to photo. I'm not sure why, it was lovely - green as can be & sharply flavored. Very nice with the $25. bottle of Rioja Rose we had ordered (more on that later.)

Next came the duck confit. Some (maybe even most) chefs overdo the salt or the crisping, but Carl's confit is always perfect. It's crisp, not overly salty, and has plenty of tender meat beneath the skin. Here it was served with some fresh spring peas, a stack of roasted red potatoes, and a grain mustard sauce. I absolutely loved this.
On my second visit with some girlfriends, we tried a few more main courses, the Braised Chicken Pappardelle, the Burger, and the Crispy Pork Tacos. The tacos are another clear winner - two crisp folded tacos stuffed with juicy shredded pork. My friends loved the pappardelle they shared. The pasta was well cooked but the sauce was a little strong on the herbs and a little sweet for me, but I think that has more to do with my taste than any real issues with the dish.

I ordered the burger. They asked me if I wanted my fries truffled - thank goodness - because I did not. I don't like truffle oil, and frankly I don't even like the fact that they offer it here. It's fragrance is so invasive that I could smell the fumes wafting off the plates of the diners seated next to us. The burger itself was ok, but I was actually hoping for (and expecting) more. The meat wasn't particularly juicy or flavorful - the patty actually seemed like it might have been over-handled. The bun was made of beautiful brioche, but it was a little soft to stand up to the weight of the fillings, and the richness of brioche isn't really needed with a burger anyway. I prefer a good old-fashioned soft roll or sesame sprinkled sponge, a la the Lodge Burger at Torrey Pines, the Starlite burger, or the burger at Farmhouse Cafe. Since you can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting an excellent burger in San Diego - the above three included - I'd probably give this one a miss in favor of some of the other menu options - like Carl's justly-famous short ribs, the duck confit, or the tacos.
Whatever you do though, when you eat at Bankers Hill, make sure you save room for dessert. Pastry Chef Rachel Going is in the kitchen, and she really knows her sweets. I've tried everything, I believe, save the cookie plate. On my first visit they sent out the strawberry shortcake instead (which I can't say I'm too sorry about, since it was textbook perfect) and our server claimed they had sold out the second time - though Rachel says that's not true. (Can you tell I'm a little bitter about missing out on her Snickers cookies?) The butterscotch pudding is to die for - like Mozza's - maybe even better. The thick wedge of chocolate cake is tender, moist and dark - served with a scoop of coffee ice cream, and her pies could convert any chocolate lover to fruit desserts forever.

The wine list is also absolutely brilliant. It's a limited selection, but well- edited and amazingly affordable, with most bottles in the $20.-$30. range. On my first visit we had a bottle of the Rioja (the only Rose, so it's easy to find) - and on the second my girlfriends and I had a bottle of the Gruet sparkling and the Rock & Vine Cabernet. All excellent, and all very affordable - especially the Cabernet.

I suspect this place will become jammed as the word gets out. As they hit their stride, I hope they'll add more specials and change up the menu to keep the regulars and more adventurous palates happy. I also kind of wish they were open for lunch, since my office is only a couple of miles away. Then again, I'm not sure more access to those desserts, crispy tacos and duck confit would be such a good thing...

Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant
2202 4th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101-2112
619) 231-0222