Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brad's Hanukkah Latkes

We look forward to eating Brad's latkes every year. He usually only makes them once or twice during Hanukkah, so it's a special meal we all love. All five of us agree that of all the many ways to cook and eat potatoes, latkes top our list.

We've been using a recipe originally from the New York Times, but I can't trace down the recipe online. I copied it onto a recipe card that's now spattered with grease stains and has been photocopied a few times. Brad's modified it over the years with some of his steps for making and handling the mixture, but it's still basically the classic latke recipe enjoyed by us for over ten years and by Jews and gentiles for centuries.

Best Latkes

2 medium russet potatoes
1/2 onion
1/4 cup flour
1 t salt
1 egg
vegetable oil

1. Peel and grate the potatoes by hand. Brad uses a hand grater to get bigger pieces of potato than if he used a Cuisinart. This way the texture ends up more like hash browns.
2. Grate the onions into the same bowl as the potatoes, alternating onions and potatoes so they're mixed up together. The acid in the onions stops the potatoes from turning brown.
3. Squeeze the water out of the grated mixture of potatoes and onions and pour into a glass measuring cup.  Wait about five minutes for the potato starch to sink to the bottom of the measuring cup.  Pour off the liquid on top and then add the starch back into the grated mixture. Mix together well. The starch creates a firmer body to the pancakes.
4. Add in flour, salt, and egg, mixing everything together in the bowl.
5. Heat vegetable oil (we use canola oil) in a saute pan on the stove on medium high heat.  Brad uses two pans at once to cook the latkes faster.
6. Carefully place scoops of mixture into the pan and press into a round shape. Brad uses a 1/4 cup measuring cup to scoop the mixture and makes his latkes about 3" in diameter. Fry on each side until a nice golden brown color.  Be sure to turn on the stove top fan.
7. Place cooked latkes in a single layer on a plate with paper towels to soak up the extra oil. Keep stacking paper towels in between layers of cooked latkes.

Brad tripled the recipe this year using six potatoes, which resulted in thirty-three latkes. We had six left over to enjoy the next day.  Serve with applesauce of your choosing.

These latkes truly deserve their place of honor at this festive holiday meal. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside, the flavor and scent of onion hovering just under the potato's earthiness, dipped in applesauce that brings a light sweetness, tartness, and pureed feel to the tongue. We don't speak much while eating, mostly making moaning and grunting noises, swiftly reaching for the next latke and scooping out more applesauce to put on top. Amanda eats hers with her hands, the rest of us use forks. The crispy morsels of crumbs on the plate get eaten too, too yummy to leave. How a humble potato can turn into this luscious latke exemplifies the transformational power of cooking, and reveals the miracle of the oil which we celebrate this time of year.


Monday, December 7, 2009

The Dim Sum Meal

We walked almost a mile from the San Francisco Hyatt Regency to the Oriental Pearl restaurant in Chinatown where we had dim sum lunch reservations.  I was excited about the lunch because our kids hadn’t ever really had a proper dim sum meal despite my Chinese heritage. Rachael Ray had recommended this restaurant, so it had to be good.  Here we could have an authentic Chinese meal. We found the restaurant and walked up the stairs.

Everyone looked at the menu.  It included some set menus for those who didn't want to order a la carte.  One was called 'The Dim Sum' and another 'Dim Sum Deluxe.'

“How about The Dim Sum set option?” I asked Brad.  He nodded. 

The waiter came back to the table. “Have you decided what you want to order?” he asked Brad. Brad said “Yes, we’d like the dim sum meal.”  “Which dim sum meal?” asked the waiter.  “THE dim sum meal,” Brad said, laughing. He pointed to the menu and the waiter nodded. Brad said, “I’d also like the order the spicy beef stir fry.” The waiter took the menus and left.

Valerie asked, “Can I have some tea?”  I sighed and said, “Fine. Do you want some too, Jacob?”  Jacob nodded and said, "Okay." I poured hot tea for her, me, Brad, and Jacob. Amanda drank ice water.

The waitress came to the table and placed a little plate of vegetarian spring rolls down. We all ate one except for Amanda.  “Are you sure you don’t want one?” I asked Amanda. She said, “No, they're gross.” It made a crunching sound when we bit into it, with warm and flavorful vegetables inside.  “Are you sure?” I asked her.  She shook her head again.

Then the waitress brought some potstickers.  “These are Jacob’s favorite,” I said. Jacob enthusiastically ate three; the girls didn’t eat any.  Valerie said, “I don’t like potstickers.” Then the waitress brought shrimp dumplings. I told the kids, “You really should try one. They’re delicious!” Jacob and Brad tried them but the girls didn’t eat any. I happily ate the leftovers, savoring the almost translucent white rice dough encasing the soft, sweet, pink shrimp flesh inside, like a beautiful noodle wrapper protecting a delicate treasure.

Then came the sui mai. “Kids, this is sui mai. It’s really good, a classic dim sum, with pork in it.”  Brad ate one and said, "It's okay, I guess." Jacob ate his up but the girls didn’t want one. I realized Amanda, the smallest and sternest of our group, was going to be starving if she didn’t eat anything and asked the waitress for a bowl of plain steamed rice for her, along with a fork.

Brad said, “I’m not really that into the dim sum. I’m glad I ordered the beef stir-fry.”   I grumbled under my breath, annoyed at his complaining. Next came the BBQ pork bao.  “Kids, this is like a Chinese hamburger. You’ll like it, just try it.”  Valerie took a little nibble, made a face and said, "Eww!" Amanda shook her head and said, “I don’t like dim sum.”  She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms, eyebrows furrowed.  I peeled the square piece of paper off the bottom of the bao and bit in. The pure white dough on the outside contrasted with the bright pink-red, sweet and savory chunks of pork on the inside. I probably could eat bao every day.

The flavors of the shrimp dumplings and the bao reminded me of big banquets in L.A. that I’d gone to when I was a kid. The big Young family on my mom's side celebrated special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries with these banquets.  Those meals could stretch out for hours and had more exotic dishes like shark fin soup, whole roasted pig, roasted duck, abalone, sticky butterfly pastries, and bird’s nest soup. It wasn't unusual to have ten or more courses at these meals. 

Amanda got her bowl of rice and shook some soy sauce on it. She started eating it with her fork. Then came the pyramid shaped taro in pastry, which I’d never had. It made a crunching sound when we bit into it. Valerie wrinkled her nose and said, “Ooh, it’s mushy inside. It tastes weird. What is taro?”  Brad said, “It’s a root that they eat a lot in Hawaii.” Amanda ate her steamed rice while we all took a few bites of the taro. I had to admit, this one was kind of strange with a purplish-gray color inside. Nobody ate all of theirs.

Then came some rice with mushrooms and Chinese sausage wrapped in a green lotus leaf. Amanda opened one up, at first intrigued by the idea, but then she smelled it and frowned, saying, “Mom, this looks really disgusting.”  Valerie agreed, “I’m not going to eat it either. It smells funny.”  Jacob, Brad, and I all gamely tried it and ate a few bites. She was right, it did smell funny and it was very sticky, almost gelatinous.  “This is Chinese sausage, you guys,” I explained in a wavering voice.

The last dish served was custard in pastry, more familiar looking and probably French inspired.  Valerie ate hers and said, “Mmm, it’s good. You should try it, Amanda.”  Amanda poked it and shook her head again.  The rest of us ate our custards. I ate the one Amanda didn’t eat. I’d stopped counting calories by this point.

The stir fry beef dish arrived with two big spoons for serving. Brad put some onto his plate and ate it quickly.   Jacob, Valerie and I ate some too. Amanda shook her head no.  Brad polished off the rest and said, “I’m sure glad I ordered that beef. It was good.” I had to admit that it was better than the dim sum.

I felt disappointed that the food wasn’t better and that the kids didn’t appreciate it. I know Anthony Bourdain would say my first mistake was listening to Rachael Ray. I had expected too much of the meal, not only a gastronomic feast, but that the kids would somehow feel connected to their Chinese culture. I failed at both of these objectives, but at least they got to try and taste new things and it added to our Chinatown adventure. We’ve even joked since then about THE dim sum meal.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bagels from my Bubba

The comforting, yeasty smell of bagels makes me think of my grandmother Inez Neiman. Whenever she and my grandfather Zacky visited us from L.A., they always brought a big brown paper grocery bag of plain and onion bagels with containers of cream cheese. This was before we had any bagel shops in town, so I always associated bagels with visits from my grandparents.

There's nothing like the chewy satisfaction of eating a whole bagel hand to mouth, the thin crispy crust yielding to the soft goodness inside. I can't eat a bagel without smelling its insides with almost every bite. My all-around favorite bagel flavor is poppy seed, although I have a soft spot for sesame seed and the more modern cinnamon sugar. Lox schmear makes a creamy complement to the savory flavors, and I've never regretted topping toasted halves with butter.

I like all bagels, whether from Noah's, Izzy's Brooklyn Bagels in Palo Alto, or Bagel Street Cafe. My favorite local bagel shop is Posh Bagel at 869 Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park. Here you can get twelve for the price of ten, an improvement on the baker's dozen. You can find over twenty-four mouthwatering kinds of bagels and twelve kinds of cream cheese, good coffee, whitefish, bagel chips, sandwiches, and pizzas. They also make delicious bagel hot dogs, a sure-fire lunch for the family (meaning everyone ends up happy and sated).

I don't look like I had a Jewish grandmother but I really did. After my dad was orphaned in China during World War II, he was adopted by a Marine named Arthur McCartney, and raised by the Neimans in Southern California. So I've grown up feeling part Jewish (and even ended up marrying a Jewish guy) partly because I grew up with my grandmother's culinary concoctions of chopped liver, brisket, kuchen, latkes, rugelach, and of course, the bagels from L.A. Explaining my part-Jewish family can be complicated. But eating a fragrant Posh Bagel warm from of the oven is simply divine.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Great Pumpkin

What is it about pumpkins that symbolizes the best of autumn?  It could be the bright orange colors, the fun of Halloween, or the comfort of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. Whatever it is, when chilly days arrive in October, my mind and stomach turn to pumpkin. It's almost an instinctual urge, a modern day kick-off to my hibernation rituals of baking and eating comfort foods. Instead of foraging for nuts to hide in a tree trunk, I head to the store to buy canned pumpkin.

In the last month I've made several batches of pumpkin bread, pumpkin caramel custard, pumpkin oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin cake roll with cream cheese filling, and pumpkin pie. I can't get enough. Whenever I see something pumpkin flavored, I *need* to get it. This also includes beverages: pumpkin spice lattes at Peet's, smoothies at Jamba Juice, and Keurig coffee pods. Even the frozen yogurt folks get into the mood. I recently had pumpkin frozen yogurt with crushed graham cracker topping at Red Mango in Palo Alto, and thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

Another favorite fall ritual is driving to Half Moon Bay to see the glorious pumpkin patches.  When my kids were littler, they enjoyed going to Lemos Farm to pick pumpkins, ride the little train and ponies, feed the goats, and see how long they could brave the haunted house. Lemos Farm is one of those places that's definitely more fun for little ones than their parents, but their shiny smiles make it worth it (and it's not as excruciating for parents as Chuck E. Cheese's).

Half Moon Bay is a wonderful seaside farm town. Not only do residents there grow pumpkins and host a famous annual Pumpkin Festival, many farmers grow Christmas trees and all kinds of flowers. The majestic blue ocean beckons nearby, both hypnotic and beautiful, but also often cold and windy. Since I grew up in Southern California and frequented the warm water and sand of Newport Beach, I miss being able to go body surfing. But the beauty of Northern California beaches takes your breath away, and the half moon shaped beach that gave the town its name creates a scenic picnic spot and relaxing place to walk in the sand.

Since Half Moon Bay is so well known for its pumpkins, bakeries there specialize in pumpkin goodies during October and November. My favorite HMB bakery is called Moonside Bakery & Cafe. It's always bustling, even on cold mornings. On my recent visit I perused the bakery case for all things pumpkin. In addition to the usual pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie, Moonside offered these goodies:

- Pumpkin cookies with walnuts, raisins, and a coating of maple frosting.
- Pumpkin filled croissants, a flavorful autumn twist on the classic buttery French pastry.
- Pumpkin cheesecake, one of my favorite kinds of cheesecake. It's hard to beat the creamy blend of tart cream cheese and cinnamon-y pumpkin spices. A sophisticated cousin to pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake is a rich, all-around, delicious dessert and not too hard to make.
- Pumpkin bread pudding, a surprisingly tasty concoction with a dense, soft texture, the punch of pumpkin flavor, and a delightfully aromatic nutmeg undertone. It was better than I expected, and something I might try making sometime.

Unfortunately, pumpkin farmers in the Midwest have had an extremely challenging year with cold and rainy weather.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Nestle, which controls 85% of the canned pumpkin market with its Libby brand, issued an apology to consumers for the canned pumpkin shortage, stating that they will stop shipping before Thanksgiving. This means canned pumpkin will likely run out at the stores before the December holidays, and Nestle won't have more pumpkin to harvest until August 2010. As word of the pumpkin scarcity spreads, it's only human nature to run out and hoard some extra cans for the cupboard. I admit I bought five large cans last weekend, and will parcel it out so my favorite autumn flavor lingers for many months to come.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Moms on Mountains

If you're the parent of a school-aged child, you know most schools in the Bay Area have educational funds to supplement both public and private school revenues. At the public Menlo-Atherton High School where my son Jacob is a senior, the annual fund raising online auction lets parents and teachers offer items for bid, with proceeds donated to the school. For two years now a pair of enterprising moms, Kathy Jackson and Kevyn Allard, have hosted a fun and creative Moms on Mountains hike. This year fifteen moms went on a rigorous and scenic five mile hike through the Skyline Ridge Preserve, led by two expert guides, Van Whitis and Tom Taber. Tom has even written a book called 'The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book', and acts as a docent at Filoli.

We hiked up to panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Butano Ridge, the largest ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We could see the flat top of the Loma Prieta Mountains in the distance, the peak of the 1989 earthquake epicenter (it's hard to believe that was twenty years ago). We learned about the flora and the fauna, and saw grinding stones that Ohlone Indian women used to use as a mortar and pestle to crush acorns and other foods that grow in the area. I relished exploring this part of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, a protected greenbelt system of over 57,000 acres and 26 open space preserves.

At the end of our hike, we arrived at Horseshoe Lake where we enjoyed a rustic, Italian style lunch graciously created and presented by Kevyn. A savvy shopper and cook, Kevyn used both store-bought and homemade items to assemble the perfect meal to enjoy after our invigorating morning hike. My favorite items were the fresh mozzarella and pesto bruschetta, the Marcona almonds, and the walnut butter cake with mixed berries. The food tasted even better after the energizing hike with fellow moms, surrounded by the natural beauty we're so fortunate to have here in the Bay Area.

Moms on Mountains Lunch Menu:

Assorted Bruschetta:
Ricotta Fresca with Slow Roasted Tomatoes
Roast Beef and Caramelized Onions
Fresh Mozzarella and Pesto

Fresh Organic Fruit & Nuts:
California Grapes
Black Amber Plums
Marcona Almonds

Walnut Butter Cake
Mixed Berries
Sangiovese Wine

Kevyn, like many moms, is a huge fan of Trader's Joe's. One of her tips is to buy the Trader Joe's frozen croissants instead of the much more expensive Williams Sonoma brand. The reason? Both buttery concoctions were created by the same chef! We've tried the chocolate filled croissants, and everyone in our family loved the buttery, chocolatey goodness. They must be thawed for several hours, rising in the process. As they cook in the oven, the smell starts to permeate throughout the house, like you've just walked in to a French bakery. By the time the croissants are ready, hungry kids and adults alike will automatically appear, ready to eat.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Yin-Yang Refreshment

Frozen yogurt used to be good, but now it can be great. When I was an undergraduate student at Stanford, getting some fro yo at Tresidder Union was a fun and sweet break from studying. I'd usually get vanilla with M&Ms, not exactly high on the nutrition scale, but something to satisfy my sweet tooth. That fro yo store gave way to other food vendors over the years in its little corner location inside Tresidder. How surprised I was to see that a new frozen yogurt shop has taken up this same spot some twenty-five years later, and even better it's a Fraiche yogurt shop. Score!

Fraiche represents a new wave of freshly made, organic, European-style, probiotic cultured frozen yogurts that taste above and beyond the old sticky, sugary variety. These shops, including Pinkberry and Red Mango, usually offer original tart, chocolate, green tea, and fruit flavors. Toppings go beyond mini M&Ms and jimmies to all kinds of fresh fruits, gourmet chocolate chips and shavings, breakfast cereals, and chewy mochi pieces, which bring me back to the Botan Japanese candy with dissolvable rice paper wrappers I had as a kid.

On my most recent foray to Fraiche in downtown Palo Alto I had the pomegranate frozen yogurt topped with blueberries and olallaberry puree. After a three mile walk around the Stanford Angell Field track, I savored this concoction as my anticipated lunch. To me this yogurt is so good that a regular size with two toppings accompanied by the awesome Blue Bottle coffee transforms my definition of the mid-day meal. The nutritional kick (low or non fat, fruit, calcium, protein) provides further justification for my thinking. There's a method to my madness--maximum flavor and nutrition with a reasonable amount of calories.

The combination of tart, delicately sweet, cool, creamy, fruity frozen yogurt and warm, bittersweet, full-bodied coffee created a delightful combination of flavors, satisfying head, heart, and stomach. It had a yin-yang beauty to it, something simple yet complex, old and new, hot and cold, textures and flavors intermingling, firing up different taste buds all around my tongue. I'm partial to pomegranate, and this frozen yogurt flavor delivers. I always like berry toppings, and the purees pack a more intense flavor that brings me to a state of sublime.

Blue Bottle coffee is an Oakland-based purveyor of some of the finest coffee in the world. You can get it locally at Fraiche, or up in the city at the Ferry Building. They also have a website to order beans directly. I ordered a bag of their Ethiopian Yirgacheffee, rated by one expert panel as some of the finest coffee in the world. It comes from the Ethiopian location where coffee originated. A farmer discovered one of his goats dancing all night and traced its odd behavior to a mysterious bean the goat had been eating the day before.

From the moment our Blue Bottle package arrived to our house to the somewhat sad moment we finished the whole pound of beans less than a week later, the amazing fragrance floated through the air, strongest in our kitchen, wending down the hallways and awakening my senses when my alarm clock went off in the morning. It's definitely my current favorite blend, and made me understand why some call coffee the nectar of the gods. Waking up to a freshly brewed pot of Blue Bottle is the best way to start the day. Coffee has numerous proven health benefits too, another justification and method to my coffee-obsessed madness.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pesto Perfected

One of our family's favorite meals is fresh pesto pasta using basil grown in our garden. For a few years now our basil has grown green and abundant, adding a fragrant presence to our back yard and our dining table. The first time I made pesto was in an Italian cooking class I took through the Palo Alto Adult Education program about fifteen years ago. We made it with mortar and pestle and I'm sure my pupils dilated when I took that first bite, a revelation to my naive taste buds.

My husband has learned over time how to carefully tend to the basil, and create the most delicious pesto using a recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook. It's a simple process, and much faster with a Cuisinart. According to my husband's exacting standards you need to use the ingredients listed in the recipe below, which he shops for at Draeger's grocery store in Menlo Park.

The earthy flavor, savory aroma, velvety texture, and beautiful green color all add up to an extremely satisfying dish. It also tastes sublime spread on good bread, atop vegetable soup, on pizza, and in omelets. Of course pesto tastes best fresh, but it freezes well so you can enjoy it months after harvesting. If you like, you can make the recipe with everything but the cheeses before freezing. After thawing, just add in the cheeses right before eating. This year my husband managed to make and freeze twenty-four servings. The pesto waits safely in its frigid home, like gold bars in a bank vault.

Sadly, Silver Palate cookbook co-author Sheila Lukins passed away of cancer at age 66 last August. We owe her a debt of gratitude for all her fine culinary creations, but most of all for this pesto recipe, adapted to include the specific ingredients we prefer.

Adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook. Makes 2 cups, enough to sauce 2 pounds of pasta.

2 cups fresh basil leaves, preferably home-grown, thoroughly washed and patted dry
4 good-size garlic cloves, peeled and chopped; the strong flavor can be mellowed by dipping the cloves in boiling water for 30 seconds
1 cup pine nuts or shelled walnuts
1 cup Olivas de Oro olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Stella Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup freshly grated Stella Romano cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the basil, garlic and walnuts in the bowl of a food processor. With the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow stream. Shut the motor off. Add the cheeses, a big pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper to taste. Process to combine, then scrape out to eat and enjoy.

For a richer sauce, add 1/4 cup heavy cream to 1 cup of pesto, and stir together with 2 tablespoons of hot pasta water.

Use fresh fettucine or pappardelle pasta, or dry fettucine cooked al dente.