Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cooking from 'My Nepenthe'

Cookbooks are among my favorite gifts to receive. It might come as a surprise to learn however, that it is a rare occasion I receive a cookbook a gift. It must be the same reason DH almost never receives wine as a gift. People must assume we have all we could ever need or want in these categories. That or it can be intimidating...but I sure hope not!
I really do love receiving a new cookbook, particularly in an age of, food network and google recipes. Working within the confines of a cookbook's pages can be a rewarding challenge.
And, as with all books given as gifts, cookbooks reflect the giver as much as the recipient. For a recent birthday, a close friend gave me the beautiful My Nepenthe cookbook. 
Nepenthe, the restaurant is arguably one of the most famous spots in all of Big Sur and quite possibly the oldest. With a sprawling, panoramic patio and floor-to-ceiling glass-walled interior, Nepenthe is easily the best bar and restaurant to take in the view. And the food is pretty great too.
our personal favorite at the restaurant! 
When we are fortunate to find ourselves in Big Sur, an outdoor seat at Nepenthe combined with an order of Ambrosia burgers (meat or veggie), a basket of fries and a pitcher of beer makes for a near perfect moment.
Big Sur
Part historical memoir, part cookbook; My Nepenthe weaves together mouthwatering recipes, from the restaurant and from the family's private repertoire along with the family history of Bill and Lolly Fasset, co-founders of the Nepenthe. Each recipe is tied into a story all its own and the order follows a stream of consciousness rather than a conventional cookbook layout.
shooting 'The Sandpiper' at Nepenthe
It's easy to get caught up in all the beautiful pictures and nostalgic stories of Nepenthe's salad days; from the bohemian 50's and 60's to the filming of 'The Sandpiper' with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but the real highlight of the book are the recipes.
In the months since receiving this cookbook, I have enjoyed preparing My Nepenthe recipes for large parties, close friends and for just the two of us.
their version
our version
Lamb brochettes with mint pesto and oven-baked rice provided the menu for DH's sis, Casey's Hastings Law School Graduation Party.
their version
our version
Lolly's famous hotcakes are now our go-to pancake batter, particularly when camping.
Marinated fresh sardines and roast corn with chipotle butter have become some of our favorite things to eat at home.
components of the rustic tart
sprinkle sweet dough w. sugar & almonds
stack up sliced pluots & strawberries
dot with butter
messy but good
And for a recent 18 reasons volunteer potluck, I made the plum and raspberry rustic tart. I swapped flavor king pluots for the plums and strawberries for raspberries since that's what looked (and tasted) best at the Berkeley Farmer's Market.
'Californian Hippy' cuisine
All the recipes have a distinctly 'Californian Hippy' feel to them. 'Californian Hippy' is by no means an official cuisine but can be defined by heaps of nuts and seeds, wheat germ, avocados, sprouts, ect. sprinkling every recipe. 
It is a cuisine and a lifestyle I have nothing but love, loyalty and nostalgia for and Nepenthe restaurant, for all intents and purposes, invented it!
I'd recommend the restaurant and the cookbook to anyone.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hunger Challenge; day 5

I was awoken abruptly at 6am this morning to the indisputable sound of the peanut butter panda puffs hitting an empty cereal bowl. "But it couldn't be!", I thought, we still have one more day of the hunger challenge. DH couldn't be sneaking sweet, crunchy cereal into his repertoire, or could he?
My sinking suspicions were confirmed at the sequential sounds of chomping. When he came to kiss me good bye, I asked him about the cereal incident. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Emily" very quickly dissolved into, "aren't we done with the Hunger Challenge yet??"
Silly boy.
After reading the day 4's entry once more, I could see how one would think that was the last day. It did have a sense of conclusion to it.
Oh well.
I ate my cinnamon oatmeal and the rest of the chana dal rice for breakfast and lunch respectively but when our weekend house guests graciously offered to take us out to dinner at our favorite local restaurant, Pizzaiolo, I caved. The thought of fire-crusted pizzas, house made pastas and ice cold beers was almost too much to bare.
Yes, we are weak people.
We cave on greater goals to peanut butter panda puffs and pizza. There's no getting around the facts.
I definitely plan to do the Hunger Challenge next year, far more prepared than this year. I learned a lot about myself and the food stamp system as a whole through the process. And anyway, the pizza was completely worth it!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hunger Challenge; day 4

Chana Dal Rice
Day four, I turned a corner. An amazing morning yoga class and some time in the sauna finally eliminated the headache that had been looming since Tuesday. 

I am definitely ready to be done with eating beans or oatmeal at every meal but I do feel like I've reached a new level of understanding with this Hunger Challenge.
Even meals I've long thought of as dirt cheap- $5 burritos, $3 pizza slices, $6 falafel sandwiches- are beyond the reach of those on the tight $4.72 budget of the California food stamp system. In the Bay Area, we are blessed with some of the best farmer's markets, restaurants and grocery stores in the state and yet I wonder how much those less fortunate are able to take advantage of the bounties of the Bay.
Upon informing my mom of the Hunger Challenge DH and I were doing this week, she half-jokingly advised me it would be a lot easier if we hit up the Dollar Menu at McDonald's. That was the opposite of my goal at the onset of this but I can say now I see how it can come to that. Most of those on food stamps do not have the luxury of time to cook multiple meals from scratch at home. There is an incredible dearth of fast AND inexpensive options on the market today. 
When it comes time to eat without such a restrictive budget, I can say undoubtedly I will appreciate every foam-art adorned latte or fire-crusted pizza or burnt caramel ice cream cone for the true indulgence it is.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hunger Challenge; day 3

L to R: black beans, chana dal, dark kidney beans soaking
Awoke this morning with better spirits than yesterday. No headache initially, but I did have a morning appointment at the DMV looming over me.
Day 3, breakfast: cinnamon oatmeal
With a bowlful of the trusty cinnamon oatmeal in my belly, I was armed and ready to face the Department of Motor Vehicles. But when I arrived to the check-in desk, they had no record of my scheduled appointment and of course, their computer system was down, so there was no way to confirm the comes headache!
All my good spirits were absorbed into the bad florescent lighting and all the awful shades of grey and that is the DMV. It only occurred to me later that it must be equally bureaucratic and spirit-draining to get food stamps. 
Why must government agencies be so painful?
Two hours later, my no. wass finally called. After paying my license renewal fee, I was informed I'd need to take a new ID photo today. Fabulous! I can only imagine just how flattering that pict will be. ugh.

 Day 3, lunch: vegan mashed potatoes, curried chickpea salad and a hard boiled egg.
Exercise is extremely difficult on this Hunger Challenge. Yesterday, I attempted a strenuous core-conditioning class at the gym and almost passed out in the first 5 minutes. I powered through but the thought of running or climbing makes me nauseous!
Day 3, snack: carrots
Desperately Seeking Peanut Butter! 
It's not even that I'm a big peanut butter person. I eat it only occasionally and can go months at a time without having any in the house. Of course this week however, I happen to have 3 FULL JARS of the buttery, salty, nutty spread taunting me in the pantry, none of which I included in the H.C. budget. Peanut butter would have been so perfect in the oatmeal, or spread on celery or dipped in carrots or eaten by the spoonful. A spoonful of peanut butter would do wonders for my morale right about now.

Day 3, dinner; Spicy Two-Bean Vegetarian Chili
Not as disgusting as it looks but mos def not my best work.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hunger Challenge; day two

By 10am, my head is killing me. Not sure if its a hunger headache or caffeine headache. Most likely the latter. Why didn't I budget out for coffee!? Or nuts? or some form of sugar? What was I thinking??
Day 2; breakfast: Oatmeal with cinnamon, again. 

Day 2; mid day snack: one hard boiled egg and curried chickpeas with bell peppers & red onions

Day 2, lunch: mexican red rice and pink beans (leftovers from last night)

Day 3, dinner: homemade chana dal with white rice 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hunger Challenge; prep and day 1

Late last week, I learned the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank would be hosting the Hunger Challenge, from September 11-17, wherein participants must eat on only $4.72 a day, for an entire week. 
As anyone who eats anywhere knows, one would be hard pressed to spend only $4.72 for a single meal, let alone an entire day.
Foraged food, harvested food and free food are all strongly discouraged, if not completely prohibited. 
DH and I were intrigued, albeit slightly terrified. $4.72 a day essentially meant NO coffee, NO cheese, NO wine...oh my! But it's only a week, right? And anyway, if we can do burrito challenges and 'A Month of Arizmendi' (an upcoming ButterDate food challenge), we ought to try out a more socio-economic challenge.
After all, the $4.72/day figure represents the average amount a Californian receives on food stamps. The Hunger Challenge is meant to bring awareness to this disparity.
Since we agreed to do it from Monday, 9/12 through Friday, 9/16, we would have only $47.20 for the entire week.

Since Berkeley Bowl has an extensive bulk bin, I was able to buy only the legumes, beans and spices we would need for the week. The grand total of the groceries came to exactly $47.12. 
The biggest expense was the olive oil, ringing up at a whopping $9.59 for 1 Liter (actually, a very good price for Italian cold-pressed EVOO). Since we won't use more than 1/2 the bottle for the week, I'm accounting only $4.75 for the EVOO. Sticklers would consider this cheating but I won't loose sleep about it. 
This $4.75 leeway allowed me to incorporate the last of the summer squash and heirloom tomatoes I'd picked up at the farmers market last week. I figure its better to be a little flexible in order to keep good food from going to waste.

For breakfast Day 1: oatmeal with cinnamon but no maple syrup or walnuts is a very different thing. I often add a spoonful of peanut butter to my oatmeal but this was not an option either. Bland but edible.
Lunch, Day 1: vegan mashed potatoes and a hard boiled egg. the lunch of champions.

Dinner, Day 1: summer squash fritters with yogurt, mexican red rice, pink beans, mixed greens & heirloom tomato slices. this is a Sol Food inspired meal is one we would eat any day of the week. hopefully, all the dinners can be this flavorful!

Homemade Ricotta Recipes

ricotta-packed pancakes!

As a follow-up to the homemade ricotta trials, here are a few quick and easy and mighty delicious executions.

First, since the lemon juice ricotta was the smoothest (and tastiest, IMHO) I spread it atop a sliced baguette and simply adorned the cheese with olive oil, salt, lemon zest. A perfect breakfast, light lunch or midnight snack.

Next, since the vinegar ricotta had a bit more structure but was still creamy, I used it in a summer squash pasta. I had every intention of mixing up a batch of fresh whole-wheat pasta and making hand-cut pappardelle but life got in the way!
Luckily, our beloved Berkeley Bowl carries fresh buckwheat pasta, just as healthy and soooo much easier. I like to use a potato peeler to shave the summer squash into thin ribbons, resembling the pasta. To make this dish even healthier, you can play with the proportions of squash ribbons:pasta. 
Simply cook up the pasta, drain and mix with the squash ribbons then dot with spoonfuls of ricotta. Yum. This dish makes a near-perfect paring with Sauvignon Blanc.

Lastly, since the buttermilk ricotta had the most structure it was best to mix into a lemon ricotta batter. 
Lemon ricotta pancakes have to be my favorite of all the pancake options out there. The lemon adds a bright, tangy dimension while the ricotta creates a creamy yet toothsome consistency.

Saturday morning I whipped up Gjelina's lemon ricotta pancake recipe in the latest issue of Bon Appetit. These super fluffy pancakes get their lighter-than-air quality from separating the eggs and whipping the whites til peaks form. There are only 4 tbsp of sugar in the whole recipe, my kind of pancakes. Fold in half the whites into the batter, then add the ricotta and lightly fold in the rest of the whites.
What a perfect lazy-daisy Saturday breakfast!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Homemade Ricotta Trials

ricotta three ways
Fresh, soft cheeses are so fitting for the warm summer months. 
Rich, creamy mozzarella and burrata sing with bright, acidic heirloom tomatoes and basil. Marscarpone marries with in-season strawberries and reduced balsamic vinegar. And ricotta, oh ricotta, how I love you! Fresh ricotta atop pasta with summer squash & corn, ricotta drizzled with honey, ricotta in pancakes...the possibilities are truly endless.
components of homemade ricotta; almost all organic!
The problem with store-bought ricotta however, even the pricier brands is a bland and flavorless taste across the board. It does not compare to the fresh variety.
The Italian word, ricotta translates to re-cooked wherein the whey from other cheese-making was re-cooked on high heat to form the curds that are ricotta. Homemade ricotta typically consists of 3-4 main ingredients: whole milk, heavy cream, salt and an acid.
The acid can be lemon juice, white wine vinegar or buttermilk.
acid #1: lemon juice
acid #2: white wine vinegar
acid #3: buttermilk
In an effort to establish the subtleties of flavor between the acids, I decided to make all 3 variations side by side. Each recipe would yield 1 cup each.
When making any cheese at home, be sure ALL utensils are sterilized and use organic ingredients wherever possible. The finished cheese tastes a lot like the milk used so make it as fresh as you can!

First, lemon juice.
Combine 3 cups whole milk, 1 cup heavy cream, 1.5 tsp. sea salt into a heavy bottomed pan. Heat to 185 degrees. Remove from heat, stir in 3 tbsp. lemon juice and allow curds to form. Once curds form, drain curds and whey into cheesecloth lined strainer. The longer the drain, the denser the ricotta will be. 
The lemon juice trial resulted in a creamy, liquid mixture with very small curds.

Next, white wine vinegar.
Combine 2 cups whole milk, 1 cup heavy cream and .5 tsp. sea salt into a heavy bottom pan and repeat the process above. This time however add 1.5 tbsp. good white wine vinegar after removing the hot dairy from the heat. Again allow curds to form and again drain over cheesecloth.
The vinegar trial resulted in a slightly thicker mixture with larger curds than the lemon juice

Last, buttermilk.
Combine 4 cups whole milk and 1 cup buttermilk into a heavy bottom pan. There is no salt or acid to add in this recipe since the buttermilk adds its own salt and acid. Simply heat the dairy mixture to 175 degrees, stirring occasionally and allow curds to form. Again drain over cheesecloth.
The buttermilk trial resulted in the largest curds of the three, resembling cottage cheese upon initial drainage.

The results of the 3 ricottas were wildly different in texture and flavor.
lemon juice
The lemon one was by far the creamiest, though it drained for the longest. It even had a hint of lemon essence to it. This would be best eaten plain, or drizzled with honey or olive oil and sea salt.
white wine vinegar
The vinegar one was only slightly denser in texture but still creamy and piquant to the taste. This would be best atop a pasta with zucchini and corn.
The buttermilk one was the most dense, resembling almost a crumbly feta-like quality. Even though this one drained for the least amount of time, it had the toughest structure and least flavor. This could work well as a ravioli or lasagna filling or in lemon-ricotta pancakes...ricotta testings to follow!