Saturday, February 28, 2009

Creativity: A perspective

I read Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love" along with a gobzillion other people a couple of summers ago. I enjoyed it, for the most part, though had some lingering questions about her specific "marketing" (my word, not hers) of her life choices. I have been simply amazed at how the book has continued to dominate the best seller lists (it was #1 on NYT for more than a year). My appreciation for the author has grown more as I've seen her in the aftermath of the book than it did while reading it--the interviews and articles I've read about her show a level of humilty and a down-to-earth quality that appeals to me. See, I like that kind of marketing.

I saw this video and know that a few of my creative type peeps might enjoy what she has to say as well. I am impressed too with her ability to stand and speak cogently for 18 minutes toward a specific theme. That's a talent...

Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday night grateful moment

In a true step of springtime faith, I bought some primroses last weekend with the intention of putting them in our window boxes out front. That has yet to happen. Thursday they were a ray of sunshine amidst the hail and snow: At around 3 a.m. we woke to a big hailstorm that lasted loudly for five minutes or so. When we woke at 6-ish, there was snow on the ground and all the way down the mountains. Then it got sunny, everything melted and seemed springy again. Midafternoon Mom and I were deep into a Jane Austen flick "Miss Austen Regrets" when I sprang up remembering that we needed to get Seth from school. And what's going on outside but the thickest and loveliest snowfall. It lasted about an hour, and though not much ever stuck, it was so pretty to drive back and forth to school in (and back and forth; ask me about our trumpet remembering sometime!).

Today, it was sunny and clear. So that's the first thing I'm thankful for. Sunshine. Lots of it. Blue skies. Snow on the mountains, not in the yard (by noon, anyway...).

I'm also thankful for:

* Mom and Dad came on Monday and stayed until this morning. It was a lovely visit with lots of Mexican Train dominoes, lots of MSNBC (Dad) and crazy Mad Money Jim Cramer (Grandpa and Seth), and lots of Mom time for me. I abandoned work (more or less, thank you understanding boss!) and we had some lovely visits, a wee tad of shopping and yummy plentiful food!

* Seth's band concert on Tuesday night was fun (as fun as wooden bleachers for an hour can be!) and it's great to see him enjoying learning the trumpet so much. I can tell you here (since he's not a regular reader!) that his band teacher thinks he'll be great in the advanced jazz band next year, and I'm tickled for him and that opportunity (I haven't told him what his teacher said as I want him to work for it and not just assume this opportunity is coming his way). You can see above that he was thrilled to have Mom and her camera out snapping away prior to the concert!

* Family time: Wednesday we had a hookie day for Seth (teacher approved, of course, even though he has had quite a few absences lately!) and even Alan got away for an afternoon off, so that was a great midweek break.

* Haircut. Wednesday I also got a "trim," although my hairdresser informed me years ago that there's no such thing as a trim... it's always a haircut. I think she says that because some people think they should pay less if less hair is cut... anyway, it feels good, looks good (if I do say so myself) and I can wear it down easier without feeling like it's a mop. I feel springy!

* Crafty time: I am fiddling around with decopauge glue and rose petals and mostly making a mess, but maybe just maybe something pretty will come of it. Right now, I'm just thankful I had some time to experiment with it this week and my cheerleading Mom to rah! rah! as I got all gluey. I may have mentioned before, but I just love crafty time... more crafts and ideas than time to see them through...
* Chocolate and peanut butter milkshakes from the IceBurg. I know all their milkshakes are special, but to me this flavor is the best, and has been my go-to for many years. I could rave on about the onion rings and the housemade tartar sauce, and there is something about that salty-sweet thing... but the flavor I want to end on is the chocolate and peanut butter. And how.

* A return to health for all members of the family. Coughs have diminished, snotty noses disappeared, more or less. It's good. A little prolonged sunshine and we might just think we're in heaven. (And yes, Kim, I'll knock on wood as I say that. I almost feel a fever coming on as I write this!)

I think that's it for this week. I feel like I'm forgetting something important and extra-thankful-for, I'm sure it will come to me as soon as I hit the publish button!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Top Chef Finale, Part 2, the real deal, the end

The most disappointing episode of the season. Or: How Carla and Stefan bunged it up big time so Hosea could walk away with a title he doesn't deserve.

Uh-oh. Think I have an opinion? Think I'm disappointed? You'd be right. Not only did it not turn out the way I was hoping (and I had some flex there... I'd even have been OK with Carla at this point), but it was essentially a very boring and dry hour of television. There wasn't a single compelling thing about it. The food didn't even look that interesting.

Now you're just dying to read the rest of this, aren't you? Trust me, I'm actually making myself write it...

So they're given the directive: Cook the best three-course meal of your life. Sounds like a dream scenario, no? It's amazing what people will do with that sentence...

Along come Richard (season 4), Marcel (season 2) and Casey (season 4) to help out Hosea, Stefan and Carla, respectively. That alone turns out to be Carla's undoing... (see, I can build more drama than Bravo).

They cook at Commander's Palace, reknowned New Orlean's restaurant. They have the usual prep time the day before, cook time the day of. They each plan a menu, and none of the menus look or sound exceptional in any way.

They do have a table of 12 distinguished judges to cook for:

Susan Spicer of Bayona Restaurant in New Orleans

John Besh of August Restaurant in New Orleans

Hubert Keller, of many restaurants in many places

Rocco Despirito, food personality! (I made that up. I can't think of any other way to describe his brand of food/media/hype. Not that that's a bad thing.)

Tory McPHail, the executive chef of Commander's Palace.

Branford Marsalis, jazz musician phenomenon

Ti Martin, one of the owners of Commander's Palace.

Toby Young (Again? Back? Really? Yes, unfortunately. Though he was pretty inconsequential at the final judges' table.)

Fabio Vivani, recently departed from the contest. I thought this a real testament to their opinion of his food that he was invited along. I really grew to enjoy Fabio throughout this contest. I would have loved for him to be there in place of Hosea.

And of course: Gail, Tom and Padma, the holy trinity of Top Chef judging.

The one twist of the night is that three unique proteins are brought in to make a passed appetizer. Hosea wins the little contest to see who chooses the protein and assigns the others; he chooses the redfish and assigns crab to Carla and alligator to Stefan (wanting to stick it to Stefan, of course). As it turns out, they all rock this assignment, so going into the sit-down portion of the meal it's pretty much anyone's game.

Three fairly unmemorable courses later and they're back at the judges' table. Meanwhile, Carla bombed one course when her blue cheese souffle wouldn't rise, and no one was impressed with her sous vide course either--it didn't seem like her style and everyone pretty much figured (correctly) that Casey played a big hand in that style of cooking. They really felt Carla should have stuck to what she does best, her way, her style.

Stefan took some hits for doing dessert, and for doing it, as Gail Simmons said, "Very 1982." Ouch. As well, he did a fish carpaccio that he'd frozen the salmon and halibut for and when it thawed on the plate it was watery. No good. The fact that he made really great squab for his main protein was lost on them at that point. The other two courses did him in.

It really was Hosea's to lose at that point. He did all his courses well, and his venision was really good, no big mistakes, and all three courses progressed nicely in depth and heft. So there he goes: Top Chef Season 5.

Color me completely beige about the whole thing.

See you next season! Well, probably before, but you know what I mean... I will miss this weekly writing deadline! Maybe I'll have to find another food show to follow...

Mom gives a fig about me

Here's a sketch my mom did for me last fall... I just got it from her now and had to share immediately. I love it! How'd you guess?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Oscar night pasta: Angel hair with blue cheese, grapes and croutons!

This is a pasta for the brave blue cheese lover. It all began with a Mark Bittman moment (his NYT blog Bitten is a favorite of mine) over the weekend, and in getting caught up on reading his recipes and blog posts, I got further caught up in the comments... one thing led to another, I got hungry Sunday night just as the Oscars started and my own experiment took off.

Let me say, too, that the photos don't do it justice. I must have been distracted by Hugh Jackman or something...

I had never considered croutons on pasta before. Just didn't really think about it. I'm all about bread salads and such, even croutons on soup of course, but when the writer submitting the recipe mentioned croutons for the crunch factor, I had to give it a whirl. I didn't have the arugula that the original recipe called for, so in looking down in the comments I saw grapes and thought, "Oh yes!" I have always liked grapes and blue cheese together. There's a wonderful local restaurant that has a grape salad on their menu right now that is to die for, so I thought if this is even close to that...

So we begin...
To make your own croutons, cut a loaf of crusty bread into cubes. Mine got a little large, for which I was thankful later--less soggy, a little more crunchy. Toss the bread cubes with oil. I did a mixture of 2 T. olive oil, 2 T. basil grapeseed oil and 2 T. rosemary grapeseed oil. Spread on two baking sheets and bake at 375 for 10-15 minutes, until browned. I switched racks halfway through to get the browning even.

Cook the pasta. I went with angel hair, just loving the thinness. Before draining, reserve a half cup of the cooking liquid. Drain and set aside 2 cups of cooked pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, rinse and cut about 1.5 cups of red grapes (black grapes would also be good and I love their texture). Heat a frying pan over medium high heat and saute the grapes in a little rosemary grapeseed oil. When they are heated through and somewhat seared (happy carmelization with the sugars!), toss them in with the pasta and a half cup of blue cheese crumbles. Drizzle the pasta cooking liquid over and add a half cup of chopped basil. Toss thoroughly, add a handful of croutons and you're good to go. (Too much liquid and you'll lose the blue cheese texture, so go with a light hand on that. You won't need the full half cup.)

I scarfed happily while watching celebrities do their love-fest thing, and life was good!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Is it a quesadilla or a panini? It's a quesanini!

I'm not sure this one actually deserves a post, but I took the picture and it was yummy, so why not!? I'm less of a bready person than most, but still love the concept of a panini.

I had some fresh mozza in the fridge, and basil, and pondered what to do with it. Pizza? Too much effort (yes, it's been like that around here lately, can't you tell?). I also had some whole wheat tortillas, and a mid-winter tomato or two lying about. I hauled out the panini press, which sadly sits unused many a night, sliced the mozzarella thinly, layered it with basil leaves and tomato slices... and voila, a quesanini!

Really, quite a treat. And something I will make again!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday night grateful moment

Are these weeks going faster and faster? This one seemed to go even faster than usual.

Tonight I'm grateful for:

* Feeling better. We're all doing better around here, breathing easier and coughing less. Ahhh. Knock on wood that THAT continues. I was thankful for good health a couple of Friday nights ago, and look what that got me! The germ cloud descended rather quickly.

* Wednesday was a great day. Good event, nice crowd, some better-than-expected fundraising. And it was sunny to boot. I sat with a girlfriend for a couple of hours after the event--outside, on the patio at Starbucks. I could almost believe it was spring. Next morning the fog descended... but still! It was a glimpse of loveliness.

* Sleep. Some of my best sleep this week came with help from my little friend Zicam. But still, nothing tops a good few hours of concentrated sleep. I wake renewed and refreshed and ready to hit the day.

* Morning rituals. I so appreciate the beginnings of the day and the way we putter through them and get out the door mostly on time. I am still in love with our morning breakfast shake, followed by the chaser of coffee! Mmmm.

*I am thankful for our dogs. Even though they drive me crazy sometimes, and I complain about them, I do love chatting to them and seeing their happy faces at medication time in the morning, when I come home at lunch or the end of the day. I say this knowing there will still be complaints about digging and chewing and all manner of odd behavior, but right now, today, I'm grateful for them.

* I'm grateful for light. Sunlight, candle light, extra daylight at each end of the day, the light bulb... whatever chases darkness.

* I'm grateful for time, the passage of it and our ability to learn and grow through time. I know that change is hard and hardly ever really happens, but we CAN learn, we CAN grow. And some of us (who, me?) have to learn the same lesson over and over again... anyway, before I devolve away from what I'm really grateful for... it's this: that a lot of little snapshots go together to make a day, a week, a month, a year. Before you know it, you get to look back, for good or for bad, at what you've made of things. And look ahead and what you get to make next. And have the opportunity to make it what you want it to be.

* I'm grateful for my indoor herb garden, where basil and mint and thyme and chives are growing every day! I need to take another set of pictures. Just a couple of weeks makes a huge difference!

* I'm grateful for winter so that when this arrives:

I will be very thankful! Allergies and weeding and figuring out what to do with all the holes the dogs dug in the yard... I won't complain. I swear it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Top Chef, Part One of the Finale!

Everyone shows up in New Orleans to cook for Emeril. Hmmm, I have my doubts. I'm not really that into it on many levels. Yes to the competition, but not a seafood gal. Not a Cajun gal. This will be about watching, not salivating.

How much time has elapsed? Enough time for Fabio and Carla to both get goofy (goofier in Carla’s case) hair. Hosea and Stefan’s hair both look the same—ha! Bald boys. Not much to change up. So they roll up to Houmas House plantation (see picture below). Emeril's out front with with Padma and Tom. Button bursting Emeril, the King of Creole. He seems so proud and happy to be hosting.

Quickfire time. The finalists get to relax and enjoy some southern hospitality as they won’t be competing. Out come Jamie, Jeff and Leah, the last three knife-packers. They don’t know what’s going on… they get a chance to get back in to the competition!

This doesn't impress the finalists. It's one more chef to have to compete with at the REAL finale. Says Hosea: “That’s not really the math I want right now.” Ah well, does any of that have to do with Leah being in the re-cook crew?

The three losers get a chance back in to the competition by making a crawfish dish that Emeril will say is "winning." Off they go! Jeff makes crawfish and grits with andouille sausage. Leah makes gumbo with andouille sausage. (Are we sensing a trend?) And Jamie makes corn cakes with poached eggs and greens and a crawfish cream sauce. I think there was andouille sausage in there somewhere. Her dish sounds like the one I'd have liked best. Emeril, not so much. He picks Jeff. This is the same Jeff who says about himself (in the third person, always a favorite of mine) "Jeff’s mind has a couple of different people talking in it," as he's talking about running crazy during the quickfire. Really? That's not really a sentence you want to say out loud. One would think.

But it's only kind of a win... Jeff has to take the elimination challenge completely, winner take all, to get into the finale.

So the cheftestants all go Delmonico’s for dinner. I'm a bit nervous for them. Is it too much to think that they could have something sprung on them while they’re at dinner? That might be mean, but I would love that… some all-night cooking session… but no, that would be too gritty. They all get safely through dinner and on to a good night's sleep.

The finale set up is catering for party of 100. Create two appetizers: a creole dish and another of your choice to feed the crowd, and a cocktail. Prep and cook for five hours. One hour to set up before the party. Emeril says, “Bring your technique.” I found that humorous, given his reputation. But there's more to gumbo than I thought.

The winner of challenge wins a car. Everyone is quite excited about this. Fabio’s car is a piece of “poo-op” (say that with an Italian accent); he has really grown on me with his funny little sayings. He really works the Italian angle.

The cooking prep gets to take place at Emeril's flagship restaurant, Delmonico’s, where they had dinner the night before. They get full access to the kitchen and ingredients. How fun! No excuses for not having the right cajun spices.

And then... they cook:
Hosea: Gumbo, pecan crusted catfish
Carla: Oyster stew, shrimp and andouille beignet
Stefan: Duck and rabit gumbo with grits, apple beignet
Jeff: Fried oyster with sausage and arugula, crawfish pots de crème
Fabio: Sausage and rabbit maque choux with grits, crawfish and crab stew with homemade pasta, muffuletta bread

Tom seems to have less of a poker face than usual as he's strolling the kitchen mid-prep. Some rolled eyes, some “yikes” looks. Not sure why he seems more this way, this year. Does he doubt the talent? Just getting tired of the whole thing?

The event takes place at the New Orleans Museum of Art and is a masquerade ball. The beauty of the moment: Gail is BACK!!! I didn't realize how much I would miss her until she went away! Carla also seemed overjoyed, actually yelped when she saw Gail. Yeah, Carla didn’t have a lot of love for the Toby. Me neither.

Emeril is a very giving judge. Mostly nice things to say at the party. Seems eager to please. Maybe he’ll save his criticism for the judge’s table? There was some really fun presentation of some of the dishes in clear bowls and little boxes. Together the clump of judges moves from one station to the next... some general comments...
Jeff: Favorite cocktail of the night. Pots de crème was good, great texture. Oyster dish was good, the flavor of New Orleans. Generally the judges loved his food.
Fabio: They thought he did a good job of doing creole with Italian touch. Didn’t like his cocktail. Wanted some heat from his pasta.
Stefan: Gumbo over grits. Good grits. Gumbo not so much. Beignet not so good. Too calm, not stressed at all, they weren’t impressed with that attitude.
Carla: Oyster stew was very good. Beignet was smokin’ hot, herbal note at end, could have eaten all night; Emeril thought it was OK to do in batches and folks got them fresh.
Hosea: Gail liked his roux. Emeril thought it was as good as any restaurant in town. Fish dish seemed like it could be complicated, but wasn’t.

Sounds to me from the first round of discussion that Stefan is going home. Wow, if Jeff wins, then Fabio is out too? There go the Europeans… and their confident strut. But Jeff has to be the overall winner to make that happen… will that happen? He'd have to beat out Carla and Hosea... And then, good lord, Carla wins again. Simplicity, temperature, balance, flavor, yet creative, so says Emeril. Sad to see Jeff go when his food was so good, and thought so highly of. He was never my favorite, but he did give it his all with this challenge, I felt.

Stefan is gone, I feel pretty sure. OMG it is Fabio! I am stunned. And sad. I would not have thought Stefan would make it through that judge's table… they must really like his food to put up with that attitude.

Now we are down to Hosea, Carla and Stefan. Not how I would have pictured it. At this point I am loathe to back Stefan, don't like Hosea, and well, maybe Carla will pull it off. That would be amazing. Amazing as in shocking and unbelievable.

Here's a great recap I enjoyed reading tonight. You'd think I'd get tired of this stuff. You'd be wrong. But, for the record, I don't read anyone else's recap until I've written my own. Don't know why, just seems more fair that way...

Build a little cupcake in your soul

So, things have been happening these past few weeks, though you wouldn't know it from the blog. Too busy or too sick to post, but never to busy to cook and bake and make cupcakes. More postings to come over the weekend, but I thought I'd start with the easy stuff--the cupcake baby shower at work last week.

There's no recipe for this one, since I basically did a Sandra Lee semi-homemade moment and amped up some cake mixes. This is truly just a photo opportunity. And even those I am borrowing--I forgot my camera at home so got these from the work files. I really need to remember my camera. All those years of events, and it's one of my most consistent "doh!" moments.... camera, what camera?

I was fairly happy with how they turned out. I'm not a cake decorator, but I like to pretend. One day I might actually take a class!

The blue giant cupcake I called my Smurf house; I just wanted to put a little door on the side and move in!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

There's no one I'd rather be sick with

It didn't actually occur to me to post anything yesterday... it was a quiet day of sickness and sleep around here, very mellow. No cooking other than ramen (seriously) spiced up with cayenne to help with stuffiness. We're in various stages of heading back toward wellness, so our Valentine's celebration consisted of foot rubbing and card exchanges. Very peaceful.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday night grateful moment

Well, just one of those weeks. I knew when I said last Friday night that I was thankful for our family not getting sick that I was tempting the illness gods. Alas, Seth's cold returned over the weekend (was it ever really gone?) and with it a mighty cough. Monday I figured he could gut it out at school (bad mom), but by the time I picked him up it was clear that he was getting worse. He was home Tuesday and by Wednesday with no real improvement I thought we'd better get him to a doctor, just in case it was something other than a cold... and sure enough, a bit of a walking pneumonia in his left lung. So, lesson learned, don't be TOO thankful for good health. Another day, another bug. The adults of the household are now in various stages of battle with the beast, and hoping for a restful weekend.

Still amidst the Puffs and water glasses, much to be thankful for:
* It's FRIDAY! Just the happiest night of the week.
* In less than a week my fundraising luncheon will be over, and after a long afternoon of assigning tables and calling around on various details, it looks like our attendance will be very close to last year, which is amazing in this "time," and a testament to the great committee I get to work with.
* Seth is improving--praise be to drugs! I was reading some online info on pneumonia, and just amazed how many people used to die from this illness. It's still quite dangerous for elderly and the immune-compromised, but with antibiotics, it's a very different disease.
* We met a new doctor (on-call) who treated Seth this week. She turned out to be a neighbor and a very lovely lady. She was a blessing in the middle of the germ cloud.
* I'm very thankful for Valentine's and the lovely opportunity to show affection to my love. My coughy, feverish love. But still, my love.
* I'm thankful for the chocolate-covered strawberries and the flower arrangement that arrived today from much-loved family. I am very thankful for my family!
* I'm thankful that Pa and Ma are on their way home from their Mexican adventure.
* I am thankful for echinacea and Emergen-C and Airborne. I am well aware that there is very little (or, next to none...) research to support my theories that these products help me fight off germs... but still, they do!
* I am thankful for giant gummy bears! I got them for the boys for Valentine's (they are both big gummy fans), and they opened them last night. They are sitting beside me as I type (I know, WHO did I really get them for?) and I know they will be yummy, yummy gummies when we all feel better!

*I am grateful for signs of spring. The signs are slow in coming, granted, but one way or another, spring is on its way. I know, it snowed this week (and I even enjoyed it while it was happening), but still, let me dream! I believe I am now ready for warmth!
* I am thankful for all the fun and different blogs out there to read and be inspired by. Just found a new one I like: absolutely beautiful things, from Brisbane, Australia (the heart/tea image above came from her site). I read some blogs for the here's-my-life writing, some for the humorous content (language warning), some because I know and care about the writer(s)--you see those in my blogroll to the side. Still others I read because I am inspired by how they have handled their circumstances, like this one: Pray for Ian; I've been following them for awhile, and am always inspired by their courage. And then there are the artsy-craftsy blogs, oh my. And the food blogs. Too many to count. I have thought it will all be OK (the economic downturn, etc.) as long as no one unplugs the internet. (Please, don't email me and tell me the internet can't be unplugged. I know that it runs on solar power. Ha.)
*Mostly tonight, like every night, I am thankful for the many different forms that love takes in our lives. Family, friends, children, dearest ones... It is certainly not something I take for granted.

I'm off to take my nighttime Airborne... wish me luck!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 12

Down to five! Next stop: New Orleans and the finale.

As is to be expected, when the stakes go up, the Big Guns Judges come in. No newcomer, Wylie Dufresne, molecular gastronomer wunderkind, arrives to preside over the quickfire. Apparently he could eat breakfast for every meal, and eggs Benedict is his all-time favorite (more on that to come...); now that’s my kind of cook. While I’ve never been a big fan of the molecular leanings, and I ALWAYS want to give Wylie a haircut, he is suddenly endeared to me. Eggs and hollandaise are a very happy combo to me!

Wylie asks the final five to make him breakfast, with eggs done perfectly! I'm surprised there isn't some Incredible Edible Egg logo behind them all...

I’ve heard said before, and Wylie said it again, egg cookery is a good way to see what someone is capable of in the kitchen. So here goes. And they have an hour. Where did all this time come from? Seems more like a mellow-fire, not a quickfire! I seem to remember quickfires as 15 minutes… maybe 30? This season it seems like there have been a number of longer ones.

They all run around whipping up this and that. There were some creative attempts—Hosea with his tempura egg—and some more mainstream menu choices—Leah, Fabio… Stefan got a kudos mention for his technique and his handling of both savory and sweet for breakfast, but then there was Carla, rockin’ it old school with her clever green eggs and ham. That could have gone either way in my humble opinion… and luckily it turned out great and Wylie loved it. Hilarious that the only meal that DIDN’T have any molecular elements was the one that won! Good for Carla. She’s in the zone. (Seth was watching with me again, and was very happy with her win!)

For the elimination challenge, out comes the ever-present knife block: Each of them has a course to cook for a judge, with 2 hours to cook and prep and cook at Capitale in Lower Manhatten. The judges, top-notch all, were told to request their “last supper.” I was surprised with some of their choices, but it made me ponder what MY last meal would be… but that’s a whole other post.

Fabio picks Lidia Bastianich: Roast chicken, roasted potatoes, caramelized onions and leafy salad
Hosea picks Susan Ungaro (president of the James Beard Foundation): Shrimp scampi with tomatoes provencal
Stefan picks Marcus Samuelsson: Salmon with spinach (“There’s nothing I could possibly screw up with this dish.” I knew when he said those words that he’d regret them… famous last words…)
Leah picks Wylie Dufresne: Egg benedict. I'm sure she's thinking, really, didn't I just do eggs?
Carla picks Jacques Pepin: Roast squab with peas

Carla was given the option of choosing one of the other chef’s meals, if she liked them better that the one she drew. She liked what she picked, and stayed with Jacques Pepin. (Have I mentioned that I’ve met him? At the French Culinary Institute in NYC, I had him sign a cookbook for a friend. It made me very happy. He told me that he has a daughter who lives in Portland. He was very friendly in a nice fatherly way and I was a wee bit star-struck.)

Fun snippet between quickfire and elimination: The crew went Perilla, Harold’s restaurant. He won Top Chef, Season 1, way back when, and was sympathetic and encouraging for their Top Chef journey.

The next day they headed out to cook! The courses were staggered 30 minutes apart, Leah went first since she had the breakfast-y dish.

Suddenly there’s a commotion and it appears that Fabio has broken his finger. Pretend this is in an Italian accent: “To the hospital? No way. I would rather chop this finger off. Sear it on the flat top and deal with it tomorrow.” He gets wrapped up and continues on. It’s a little painful watching him peel potatoes…

Tom comes into the kitchen with his suit on, dressy dressy. Says don’t embarrass me out there tonight. Wow, that’s a lot of confidence… I don’t think he’s ever said that before, sounds like he doubts they can do it. There have been plenty of gold-weight judges on the show before… why say that now? Does he think this lot is a bunch of losers?

Leah goes first, hollandaise a little thick. Fairly traditional. Egg white a little watery, doesn’t have the textures down.

Stefan: Thinks he could win (of course!). Salmon with potatoes, spinach. It’s unanimous: salmon horribly overcooked. Dill sauce good, well seasoned. Spinach pretty so-so.

Hosea: Initially the comments are that he did a fine job between creativity and traditional. But Pepin says he didn’t cook from the gut. And there’s some question whether his version of scampi was traditional or HIS version.

Fabio: Had a real hard time butchering the chicken with one hand. But they love it. Chicken is awesome. This is the first course where the cheftestant channeled their chef. Not so much on the salad (was called “airplane food”). Lydia was very happy with her last meal.

Carla: Temperature of squab concerned her as it was going out. Pepin loved it—it was true to what he wanted. Comfort food for him, memories from childhood. Butter tarragon peas, everyone loved. Really simple, but breast overcooked a bit for Marco. There was audacity in serving something so simple. Jacques could die happy with that meal.

Off they go to the judges table; Jacques is in the final along with the usuals. Toby is pretty mild these days. Less scripted, less interesting.

They called the whole group in to talk about the food. From the comments at the dinner I thought they could have just called in Carla and Fabio for the top two and left Stefan, Hosea and Leah to stew before they came out as the losers. But no, let’s talk all together!

When they all came back in, I thought it might actually go to Carla. Everyone loved those peas. But peas win it? Really? Say it isn’t so. Thankfully it wasn’t. Fabio! Whew. In spite of his broken finger, he won it!

Carla sees herself as the tortoise picking up speed! She’s safe and going to New Orleans. And Carla and Fabio are dismissed so the judges can talk to the bottom three.

Stefan the stress ball, all curled up with his arms folded across his chest; he looks like he thinks it’s going to be him. For a minute I think so too. Hosea and Leah are both pretty deadpan. I bet cuddling on the sofa feels like a million miles away. And luckily, for me anyway, it’s Leah that is sent home. Whew.

For the finale, it's Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans. This is kind of an odd choice, considering Emeril’s reputation in the food world. His restaurants are considered top-tier, but his style on his cooking shows is considered pretty low-brow by most established chefs, and I am just surprised that Colicchio and Co. are going there. Will be interesting to watch…

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Pizza with peanuty goodness

The first time I tasted a pizza with peanut sauce (actually I think it was the first time I'd had peanut sauce, period) was in Sydney around 1988, and I thought it was the most ingenious thing ever.

Peanut sauce became a favorite of mine from that time onward (see link to my usual recipe below), and it's a rare day I don't have a homemade tub of it lurking around my fridge somewhere. Nothing jazzes up a bowl of steamed veggies or some noodles more than a dollop of peanut sauce!

But I haven't made pizza with it, at home. I know, what? Why ever not!? Seems like a no-brainer. Peanut sauce on a crust with some veggies... kinda healthy, too. I looked around online to see if this kind of pizza even needed cheese--it's been so long since I've had this in a restaurant I couldn't really remember... but EVERY pizza needs cheese, right?

I had a bit of a no-show on the pizza crust that I started in the breadmaker today (I'm inclined to think it was user error, not an issue with the machine itself), so I went out for premade crusts, which will always work in a pinch.

Here's what I topped it with:
1/2 cup peanut sauce I had knocking around in the fridge
Spread over the premade crust.
Top with:
1/2 c cup shredded carrots
5 steamed asparagus spears, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 cup chopped red peppers
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
3/4 cup shredded mozzarella

Bake for 10-15 minutes at 425 degrees.

This smelled heavenly while it baked and tasted even better once it was out and cut up! Even the somewhat skeptical husband was a fan after a slice or two! Yum-o.

My sidekick with a stick!

Sweet SIL Kim took up the superhero challenge and dialed up a little Hero Factory over the weekend. I'm not going to take issue with her not having any eyes (is that an eye patch? how daring!), or a nose for that matter. What will be of more concern to me when she comes to save the day is that she's doing it with a stick... Granted, a spectacular splintery stick, but I worry that it will be lasered/shot/burned pretty quick.

But, on the plus side, what girl hasn't ALWAYS wanted to be called a stick? Really. Someone comes up to you and says, "You're lookin' like a stick," and you say, "Cool, thanks."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Save the flying lash girl, save the world

So on my friend Jen's blog she showed off her new superhero likeness, The Superhuman Lasered Jones. Not bad, I thought, but I wonder what my likeness would be? Apparently, I'm Astonishing! How cool is that? Granted, there's a little self-selection going on--I did pick the wings after all, and how surprising is it that the whole outfit is green? Ha.

To find out who your superhero is, go to Hero Factory. A little fun for your weekend...

Friday, February 6, 2009

Friday night grateful moment

Ah, the weekend cave. I just thought that up today and I am all over that phrase. From now on, when I think about the weekend, I will envision heading into my cave of comfort and relaxation. Doesn't sound very energetic, does it? Maybe that will just be my winter phrase... my hibernation-mode descriptor.

Today there is much to be thankful for:

*Seth's home!

*Nothing too pressing on the agenda for the weekend, other than cave activity! Some cooking, some baking, some chillin', reading, artsy-craftsy stuff. Nothing that you need to leave the cave for.

*I'm thankful that I'm not looking for a job right now. I know folks for whom these days are quite stressful on the job hunt, and I get to talk to some of them on the phone occasionally, and it's not always pretty.

*I'm thankful that the stomach flu seems to have passed by our house. (Knock on wood.) It's been pretty nasty 'round town and so far we've avoided. Of course, Seth could be carrying something... we might want to quarantine him for 24 hours!

*I'm thankful for all the help I have with a fundraiser that's in less than two weeks. The committee of ladies I work with are all very delightful and hard working and I am blessed to be a part of such a great organization.

*I'm thankful we're having a baby shower at work this next week and that gives me the happy opportunity to bake 150 cupcakes! And play with my giant cupcake pan again too... this time I will take pictures.

*I'm thankful for sleep. This little tidbit I simply don't take for granted, and lately it's not been difficult, even with stressful things on my mind, to get my zzz's. I hope that continues!

*I'm thankful for Valentine's coming up, which gives me a chance to reflect on my true love in my own kooky creative way.

*I'm thankful for my aerogarden, which Seth gave me for my birthday, way back when. We finally got it hooked up and rolling last week, and now it's going gangbusters with the herbies. I think there's a happy side effect to the growing lights too... almost like sunshine for my SAD!

*I'm thankful for haystacks! Happy family supper.

*Last but not least, I'm ever-so-thankful for my family and friends. Even the ones that mock me for buying sherbet and colored fish crackers.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 11

So we kick off the top 6 with a fabulous favorite, Eric Ripert. There aren't too many yummier chefs around, in my humble opinion. He has always seemed so down to earth for all his many stars and accolades. His restaurant, Le Bernadin, is considered the pinnacle of French eating in NYC. Check out their web site. Completely breaks my rule for no music on a web page. Just gorgeous and ethereal and makes me want to book a ticket to NYC. Now. And then there's his other web site, Avec Eric, which is also quite fun.

So, with Eric around, it has to be fish. And more fish. For the elimination challenge, a three-round fish fillet tournament!

Round 1: 2 whole sardines to be filleted. 5 minutes to clean and and butterfly according to Eric’s instruction. Off they go... Priceless: the look on Eric’s face when he saw Carla’s fish… not so well done... Jamie's out as well. Fabio rocked. But apparently Leah did best. Hmm.

Round 2: Arctic char: fillet it. Again, 5 minutes. Leah stopped. Stuck out her bottom lip and just kind of pouted. (Of course Hosea has an opinion about that.) Out: Leah and Fabio. Winner of that round: Hosea.

Round 3: Eel: peel it and fillet it. Recently killed, but still may move while you’re working on it… wow. According to Stefan, skinning eel is like riding a bike. Yeah, right. Even in Germany I don’t think that’s true… However, Stefan DID rather rock this round… no immunity but "a really useful advantage," says Padma. (Since when does eel = fish? I get "seafood," but not fish per se. I'm just a seafood wimp, I guess.)

Here comes the lull... lunch in the private room at Le Bernadin. (Hello chefs, be on the ready, I don’t think that’s all there is to it… hello, pay attention chefs… but no, they are placidly just eating away in la-la land...) Six courses in, out comes the knife block. They must now recreate one of the dishes they just ate. And Stefan gets to choose his first. Lucky man. Some of those dishes were definitely more complicated than others. They got two hours to prep and then Chef Eric came around to taste and give subtle advice. Tension. Pressure. Being watched while cooking. Breathe.
And so it went... judges get to eat the Le Bernadin original and compare it to the Top Chef attempt.

Sourdough-crusted red snapper with tomato basil consommé: Fabio. Eric was pretty impressed, details make the difference, a good forgery…

Baked mahimahi with miso and matsutake mushroom sauce: Leah. A definite flavor difference between the orignal and the ripoff. Fish overcooked, miso sauce not quite like the original.

Baked lobster with asparagus and hollandaise sauce: Stefan. They immediately notice that Stefan's sauce is not as light. (Eric's is made in blender. Good to know.) Well-seasoned asparagus. Lobster very much the same. Sauce tastes very good. Very, very close, says Eric.

Oil-poached escolar with potato crisps in a red wine béarnaise: Carla. She was cooking right down to the wire. (Really great the way the cheftestants help each other out. Carla would not have had a dish to present without her cohorts.) From Eric: Potatoes not as crispy as they should be. However, it was one of the more difficult dishes. She was loyal to original dish. She got it.

Za’atar-spiced monkfish with black garlic: Hosea. Fish overcooked. And, from Tom, monkfish needs to rest before you cut it (also good to know, new information for me). Hosea had never cooked with za’atar spice before and there was too much on the fish. But, fairly close with the sauce.

Sauteed black bass with braised celery with serrano ham peppercorn sauce: Jamie. Celery blanched out, way too salty. Salt aside, fish is well cooked. Although, according to Toby, not merely unremarkable, it’s remarkably poor, says she fell flat on her face. Tom actually defended her and said it wasn’t as easy as it looks. Eric agreed, not an easy dish.

On top: Carla, Stefan and Fabio. All did well, but the winner is: Stefan. Thank goodness. I was going to freak if Carla won another one. And Stefan won the book from Eric, as well as an amazing gift of working for a week at Le Bernardin and then flying to the Food and Wine Classic at Pebble Beach. (Watch out, that site also has music, and it's not quite the treat that Le Bernadin's is.) Holy cow, that’s an honor wrapped up in a giant pretty bow.

Jamie, Leah, Hosea on the losing end…
Hosea... somewhat surprised to be there. Hadn’t cooked with za’atar. Fish was overcooked, sauce was good, fish didn’t rest. The judges didn't really have anything new to say, but the dish wasn't inedible.

Leah tries to say she knew what she did wrong, but I’m not sure she really does. Missed the mark. Toby had least amount of miso, which resulted in rather dull fish, apparently. And briefly, the quickfire lay-down came back to haunt her. Tom asks about the giving up… she regrets giving up. Tried her best with the elimination fish.

Jamie: Celery was oversalted. She knew it, over-reduced… Padma says it wasn’t appetizing to look at or eat, would have sent it back if she could have. Whole dish completely toxic, didn’t want to eat more than one bite: Toby. Knew the mistakes, she says, couldn’t fix them, it was too late at that point…

I’d pick Jamie to go home. And sure enough, so did they.

Check out this defense of the Jamie-knife-packing on Eric's site. And this one in the Village Voice. Apparently it's all the rage to think that they're going to keep Leah and Hosea around to milk the wee bit 'o drama out of their pettiness... I'm not so sure. Jamie did quite well to this point, but now it really is down to the details between good and great, and she just didn't cut it in this challenge. And other than some selective editing for maximum petty comments, Leah and Hosea seem to be pretty much old news by now.
Down to five... so who's out before the top 4? My bet would be Carla or Leah, neither of which deserve to be in the finals. Can we send both home? I wasn't horribly sad to see Jamie go, but when I think about who should be in the finals, I think of her... so now I'm a little sad. Sniff.

For some great clips of Top Chef "behind the scenes," check out the site, as well as hulu. And here's a fun blog I like to follow that has some good fun at Top Chef's expense.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

One of the many ways to Sher's heart

Apparently these have been around for at least a year--the label above is from 2007, but it's the only real image I could find online for heart-shaped Junior Mints.

I just discovered them this year though, and I'm hooked. Not only are they as wonderful as the original (of course, why wouldn't they be?), but they're almost twice as big. So they're almost two bites! There are some with red centers, which is also very nifty.

Tonight while I watched Top Chef--more on that later--I had some popcorn and my little hearts of mint. So fine. Had to share.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A prepped kitchen is a happy kitchen

Last week I had a recipe taste test and photo shoot at work on Monday, so Sunday I got everything prepped and ready to go. It reminded me of when I was catering and needed to get things ready for an event, or just the week coming up, and I would spend a few hours cleaning and chopping and getting everything ready to go. It is a great way to run a kitchen, even if it's just a home kitchen, because cooking is ALWAYS so much more fun, and efficient, if everything is ready and prepped.

I had to take a picture of all the pretty vegetables all ready to go. I made three soups, a salad, a pasta dish (the only one that didn't pass the taste test) and rice pilaf, lickty split the next morning! If you're interested in healthy recipes, we take all of our recipes from a couple of sites that allow reprinting, as long as there are NO changes to the recipe... so even if I want to tweak a little here or there, I can't. It does take quite the willpower, I must say.

Happy prepping! It was glorious to get up and be able to cook without all the muss and fuss. I will give it a try in the future, just for me!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Multicolored tapioca. Just because.

Tapioca is a very early, long-standing food memory for me. I am sure the first few times I had it, my mom made it. But somewhere along the way it became the domain of my brother, and he would whip up giant batches of it and eat the lion's share of it... sometimes still warm. It was from an instant box--a red box with "Minute Tapioca" on it that was ever-present in our kitchen growing up. I still love tapioca, and have made it many times as an adult. But I haven't really utilized it as a non-instant (that would be "from scratch") ingredient other than as an occasional thickener in pies or crisps, and I've never liked it in that setting--too pearl-y, and it seems to interfere with the desired texture of whatever it is I'm making. To me, tapioca is meant to be a pudding. Period.

So last summer I was planning a Chinese-style (if you add the "-style," you get away with being a little less authetic, just fyi) dinner for work to celebrate the Beijing Summer Olympics, and visited the very small, rather dismal local Asian grocery store. They didn't have much that I was interested in, but I saw a bag of pretty colorful beads with "tapioca" on the bag, and had to have it. And, to boot, the whole bag was 99 cents. What a bargain!

The bag has been beckoning to me from the cupboard for months. Finally I decided, after scorching a batch of instant-ish tapioca a week or so ago, that the time for "from scratch" had arrived. Following a little online investigation, I arrived at 101 cookbooks, and decided her recipe would be the one. The photo alone drew me in! Check her out--her blog is lovely and I have always enjoyed her writing as well.

I ammended her recipe just slightly--less milk to make it a wee big eggier, and though I was concerned about the scorching after my last debacle with the pudding, it didn't even stick a little for me this time... I did use a different pot, one of my small All-Clads, and it worked like a jiff. Quite yummy, too!

Tapioca pudding
2.5 cups milk, divided
1/3 cup small pearl tapioca
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split along the length (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract). I used about a half teaspoon of this glorious vanilla bean paste I buy by the jar.

Pour 3/4 cup of the milk into a medium-sized, thick-bottomed pot. Add the tapioca and soak for 60 minutes (I couldn't wait more than 30 and it still turned out just fine. I was a very impatient tapioca maker, what can I say?). Whisk in the egg yolks, salt, sugar, and the remaining milk. Scrape the vanilla bean along its length with a knife and add that bean "paste" along with the bean itself to the pot (if you are using vanilla extract in place of the vanilla bean stir it in at the very end, after the pudding is completely cooked).

Over medium heat slowly bring the mixture just barely to a boil, stirring fairly consistently. Reduce the heat and let the mixture fall to a simmer; you keep it here until the tapioca is fully cooked, another 20 minutes or so. The tapioca will tell you when it is ready if you watch carefully. The tapioca beads will swell up and become almost entirely translucent. The custardy part of pudding will thicken as well. Keep tasting and assessing at this stage. It is even more critical to keep stirring at this point avoid dreaded scorching. Remove from heat and let cool a bit. I ate some warm, some cold... liked it equally either way.

Serves 4-6. (Or, Sher... twice. Hmmm, something's up with the quantities here!)

See those two little beads that stand out along the bottom of the bowl above? They were once green and pink. It was kinda cool how the whole pudding mellowed as it cooked, and the beads lost their bright color, and the pudding itself all became a kind of rosy glowing mass. It was quite good. Hate to say it, but I won't be going back to instant. This didn't seem like any more work, and heaps better.
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