Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Finally Jacques Pepin fell for me

Be still my heart. I met my fantasy man, the world famous Chef Jacques Pepin last week. Sort of. We were sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Playa del Carmen in Mexico. It was a French cafe - (mais oui!) and the only one in town. We were checked out of the hotel and grabbing lunch before our car arrived. I was eating a French classic, Salade Nicoise and drinking Perrier (vraiment)...
Suddenly I see Jacques and his best buddy also a chef, Claude, pass by on the sidewalk just a few feet away from our table (alors!). My husband was sitting with his back to the street but saw my face register and as soon as I sputtered my explanation and knowing my decades long infatuation, he urged me to seize the moment. Just as they passed out of view, I un-froze and lept up from my chair and onto the sidewalk.
Luckily, just a few feet away Jacques and Claude had stopped to let the small black poodle Jacques was walking (mais ouis again...a French Poodle) have a sniff with an oncoming dog. While I was still mentally panicking over whether best to address him as Mr. Pepin, Monsieur Pepin or just Jacques, he turned to proceed and suddenly fell to the ground, still holding the leash! I immediately addressed my great hero with these clever words: "OOOhhh...are you all right?" while Claude grabbed an elbow to help him up. Monsieur Pepin sat up, looked me right in the eye, nodded and then got the rest of the way up himself with some difficulty and less dignity, and turned away.
At that point Claude looked directly at me - and rather suspiciously I thought - as though wondering why this American woman was following so closely behind them. And (mon Dieu!) as both of them were so obviously embarassed and the situation so awkward, I instantly decided I couldn't bring myself to impose a celebrity encounter on them. I would take the high road and make do forever with that one moment of direct eye contact... which was more than I had ever dreamed of, after all.
Footnote: I learned several years ago that Jacques Pepin had a condo in PDC that was available as a rental and when we were shopping for a vacation destination recently, I got very excited when the web site calendar showed the condo was available over our dates. The photos were awesome also. Alas the rental agent subsequently told me the owner would be in residence through March and the calendar innacurate so we made other plans but had no idea of the actual location of the condo which turned out to be across the street from our hotel so I had no hopes for even a brief sighting. To have slept in his bed, cooked with his pots would have been amazing (incroyable). But a real life encounter was even more exciting.

Click here for more about Jacques, still writing cookbooks

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Modestly speaking, this gingerbread is awesome

I'm a little OD'd on gingerbread myself, having made EIGHT DOUBLE recipes for the Concert in the Clearing Reception I catered last night, but I'm willing to document so others can go forth, buy some Guinness, and start thinking about the holidays (gasp). The recipe is from Cook's Illustrated - although I don't know which issue. Hence the perfection as it was studied, researched, and thoroughly tested. One of the problems solved was the tendency of gingerbread to collapse in the middle when baking, and this one really doesn't. Be sure and follow directions exactly about stiring in the flour though because interestingly, that's the trick. That, probably plus the exact combo of Guinness, molasses and soda. Also, don't be tempted to use butter instead of vegetable oil.  It's there for a reason. Otherwise, I experimented successfully with using up to half whole wheat flour, ditto cornmeal and using both dark brown sugar and some rather potent molasses. All of those variations worked. Freezes well also. Enjoy.

Classic Gingerbread Cake
NOTE: This cake packs potent yet well balanced, fragrant, spicy heat. If you are particularly sensitive to spice, you can decrease the amount of dried ginger to 1tablespoon.

3/4    cup stout
1/2    teaspoon baking soda
2/3    cup mild molasses
3/4    cup packed light brown sugar
1/4    cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting pan
2       tablespoons ground ginger
1/2    teaspoon baking powder
1/2    teaspoon table salt
1/4    teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4    teaspoon finely ground black pepper
2       large eggs
1/3    cup vegetable oil
1       tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 8-inch square baking pan.
2. Bring stout to boil in medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda (mixture will foam vigorously). When foaming subsides, stil in molasses, brown sugar, and granulated sugar until dissolved; set mixture aside. Whisk flour, ground ginger, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and pepper together in large bowl; set aside.
3. Transfer flour mixture to large bowl. Whisk in eggs, oil, ang grated ginger until combined. Whisk wet mixture into flour mixture in thirds; stirring vigorously until completely smooth after each addition.
4.  Transfer batter to prepared pan and gently tap pan against counter 3 or 4 times to dislodge any air bubbles. Bake until top of cake is just firm to touch and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes. Cool cake in pan about 1 1/2 hours. Cut into squares and serve warm or at room temperature. Serve plain or with lightly sweetened whipped cream. Leftovers can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for 2 days.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Feeling like a pioneer woman

Since we've returned from our annual hiatus in Northen Michigan, I've been (very reluctantly) giving away the jars of canning I did in August. I'm so proud of myself I really just want them to sit on a shelf where I can gaze at them. Now I get why people enter these kinds of things in the Texas State Fair. They're beautiful. Little jewels of ready to eat food, patiently waiting to be used.

Luckly, Aunt Gayle was cleaning out her garage and had the door open so I saw an old canning kettle with basket which she was happy to give away. She also had some jars and I scrounged a few more. Ready to go.

Visited a local farm that had tiny cukes so first I made the pickles as I was confident of the recipe, having made the refrigerated kind previously. The pickles juice was so good I did another small batch using some odd sized jars and made pickled beets.

Got carried away buying fresh farmer corn so used almost a dozen ears to make corn relish. Tastes alot like the kind I used to get at the Neiman Marcus lunch counter many years ago.

Actually got the peaches at the store, but they were local. Had in mind a brandied peach thing, but only had rum on hand so that's it.

And finally attempted the jam. Cousin Ginny brought me some blackberries she and Jim had picked (secret location not revealed). I bought a pint of raspberries and because I still didn't have enought fruit for my recipe, threw in a few Michigan blueberries also. A miracle: jelled perfectly and tastes divine.

Carefully wrapped each jar in newspaper for the 1400 mile drive home and they all arrived intact. Possibly will all be gone by Christmas. Thank goodness we don't need to stock a cellar to survive the winter like the many of the pioneer women actually did, but if we did, I now have at least a clue how to go about it. I feel connected. And virtuous. And hungry.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Real strawberry flavor - from real strawberries

A few years ago, I did pick a couple of tiny little strawberries out of an old patch hidden in the grassy field across the road, and was stunned at the revelation of what strawberry flavor really is. Since then I have totally boycotted those big red too-perfect to be real commercially grown California strawberries which actually taste like tart Kool-Aid and incidentally carry more pesticide residue than almost any other fruit. Yuk.

So two summers ago on impulse I bought a flat of "ever-bearing" strawberries from The Plantman (a local nursery, love the name) and got some help arranging them on the lower slope of the drainage field next to our house...or "the mound" as we euphemistically call it. Last year, a few berries showed up, just enough to whet our appetite. This year, a bonanza. And a feast.

When the whole patch first started showing little balls of green all over, I salivated and announced in advance that we were not sharing. Actually, I planned to sit right next to the mound and personally eat them one by one as they ripened. And they soon came on gorgeously ripe red and tasted every bit as deliciously like "strawberry" as I had anticipated. Occasionally I had a few sunshine warm ones straight out of the patch. Turns out that to save them from the birds and chipmunks we had to pick them by the handful as they ripened, and they accumulated in a bowl on the kitchen counter. So instead of noshing in a chair outside, I just grabbed a few every time I passed through the kitchen.

But last week they got ahead of me. And facing about two quarts rapidly deteriorating, I dashed to the store for Sure-Jell (powered fruit pectin) and came home and whipped out a batch of strawberry freezer jam. It's really easy. Two cups of smashed berries requires four cups of sugar, which seems an obscene ratio of fruit to sugar. But when it all jells into a jewel colored jam it comes really close to tasting like a fresh and perfectly sweet homegrown strawberry. Delicious. This is what strawberries are supposed to taste like.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Grilling for the Cousins

Hosted first big dinner of the summer season last night. Three sets of cousins from MI, VA and CA, plus their 97 and 93 year old Moms who are Bob's Aunts from AZ and MI. Kind of a crowd for this tiny summer house but as I told them several times, this is exactly why I bought that big table and really, we LIKE doing this. But to make a little more room in the kitchen, outsourced the cooking to the spouse who is still enamoured of his new propane grill (yes, the one that took 3 and 1/2 hours to assemble). Nothing super special but I think we wowed them anyway.

My old fail proof family recipe for grilled chicken is simply to baste while cooking with a concotion of just butter, worcestershire sauce, garlic salt and lemon juice, applied generously. These were rather small little fryers from the Petoskey Tannery Creek meat market - but I'm guessing they were raised locally as the flavor was too good (and too expensive) to have been raised in a large scale production facility.

As I am conscious of eating locally as much as possible, was happy to announce to all that we were eating Michigan grown asparagus (MI is third largest asparagus producer in the nation - who knew?). And new potatoes although not local as I didn't make it to the farm market to see if although still early, there might have been any available yet. And for dessert, there was really yummy old style cobbler made from Friske Orchard cherries (in Charlevoix) and wild rhubarb from the vacant lot across the road where we make our big garden. Oh...and of course, home made vanilla ice cream. They were all groaning by the end of the meal, a good sign I think.

And it doesn't get much better than this.

Friday, April 01, 2011

At least I ate well in Las Vegas

I was confined against my will to the Mandalay Bay Hotel for 2 1/2 days this week at a trade show where I knew absolutely no one. I had only about 1 day worth of meetings, so I had plenty of time to eat.

So on the first day I was on my way to register when I noticed the life size photo of a good looking chef at the front of a restaurant called Fleur, just at the edge of the mammoth hotel lobby, but with inviting patio like seating. On closer inspection, the sign said the chef was Hubert Keller, whose name was vaguely familiar enough to suck me in for lunch. (He is actually famous.) Turned out to be a very sophisticated menu and I immediately settled into an uphostered chair in the front row to watch the tourists go by in their T-shirts and flip-flops while I sipped a sinful mid-day glass of prosecco. I restrained myself on the food side and ordered only a pair of appetizers, although the chef is known for creative high concept burgers. My first delivery was a selection of marinated olives in a long ceramic boat - interesting variety and great bar food but really didn't count as a vegetable. My second choice was gnocci, which were superb: light, tender and in a dual puddle of pesto and tomato sauce, each of which were intense in opposite and complementary ways. I seriously considered asking for another portion. But sufficiently fueled & lubricated for a few more hours, my work ethic prevailed and I tacked the trade show for the rest of the afternoon.

Not having been offered dinner by any of the 325 exhibitors at the show (actually I wasn't offered anything by any of them as apparently my badge was color coded to shout "ignore her!") I bravely decided to be my own best date and decided after my restraint at lunch, something substantial was in order. I presented myself at about 6 at StripSteak (is that a burlesque pun?), was seated politely right in the middle of the room which is certainly not always the case for a lone diner in a fancy restaurant, and acquired a solicitous waiter who wanted to know if I was in a hurry to be somewhere else. Embarassingly not, so I enjoyed my very excellent Manhattan and had time to read every word of the menu about 6 times before he came back to take my order. Meanwhile the place filled up and I was able to enjoy easedropping at the tables on either side of me, both obviously filled with people who WERE invited to dinner by someone else at the show.

Under the influence of my cocktail and wanting to do something wild and crazy I ordered the Foie Gras Sliders as an appetizer. I really could have been happy with dinner made up entirely of these little guys because they were amazing. The slices of seared rich and juicy duck liver was combined with very thin slices of fresh pear and it was both rich and fresh at the same time.

Still debating the entree, I was delivered a trio of french fries, sitting up right in a special holder and with a trio of interesting dipping sauces. The waiter said it was compliments of the chef and for a couple minutes I thought it was a special amuse for the charming single woman sitting alone. Shortly after I saw other tables getting the same treat. Nevertheless it was a nice touch and although never before a fan of truffles, I couldn't stop munching on the ones fried in truffle oil and served with a truffle aoli. I'm a fan now.

Finally, after perusing prices on the steaks over and over and trying to suppress my sticker shock, I settled on the mid-price range and confidently ordered a $65 hunk of "American Kobe" dry-aged wood fire roasted rib-eye beef (yes, $65), plus creamed spinach and a glass of Australian Malbec, 2008 please. The steak was indeed perfectly done, kind of crusty on the outside and juicy pink on the inside. Yum. But sadly I left about 3 bites on my plate, too stuffed to finish and no dog to take the leftovers home to.

I did give serious consideration to the desert menu, not being even slightly inhibited by prices any longer. But nothing really called to me and I felt like I had been eating for hours (actually it was almost 2). I asked the by this time semi-frantic very busy waiter for the peppermint-ginger tea to go and he kindly took time to bring me a teapot and drinking glass bound in several napkins to carry some back to my room. In face he was so accommodating I hardly noticed that I had spent about $150 on dinner for me, just me. Hello expense account.

Contentedly I signed the check and said good night to my table neighbors who were probably on their way out to some wild late night casino parties. I quickly made my way back to the elevator banks and my room and my comfy bed.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rustic Texas Marmalade

We may have created a new holiday tradition. Or I may have just moved my non-cooking friend Bonnie a little bit closer to cooking. Either way, the marmalade we made just before Christmas turned out to be beautiful jewels, lovely sweet/bitter treats, if a tad "rustic".

I used an Alton Brown recipe and as not uncommon to me and many cooks, skipped over the part involving equipment I did not own, ie a mandoline for slicing the oranges paper thin. Actually I didn't even work too hard at slicing the oranges, lemon and grapefruit particularly thin at all. Hence, when you spread this marmalade on your toast, you need to be prepared for some chewing and/or navigating around the big bits. But the flavor in the jelly parts makes it all worthwhile. And think of the fiber!

We used Texas grown organic oranges (not pretty and kinda small) and one gorgeous Rio Grande Valley Texas grapefruit, and a couple lemons - I think some Grand Marnier too (can't remember...). Hence Bonnie's labels: Rustic Texas Marmalade.