Thursday, October 29, 2009


I’ll never forget the first time I had raclette.  We were introduced to this interactive meal (involving individual pans, wooden scrapers and melted cheese) years ago while visiting family in Switzerland. I also remember declaring on the spot that it was my favorite dish ever.

Since then, I’ve enjoyed raclette a million times over. While the novelty has worn off, the deliciousness hasn’t. 
Raclette, pronounced rah-KLEHT, refers to both a type of cheese and a traditional Swiss dish that features said cheese. It originated in the Swiss canton of Valais where, as legend has it, the Alpine herdsmen set up camp for the night and when some cheese got too close to the fire, it melted onto a rock. Not wanting to waste (the Swiss are incredibly resourceful), they scraped it up (hence the French root word “racler,” meaning “to scrape”) and declared it delicious. 

If you go to a Swiss street festival today, you’ll see raclette being served in a close-to-traditional fashion. A huge half-wheel is heated, cut side up, under an electric heat source until it melts and bubbles, after which it is scraped off over tiny boiled potatoes or bread. But most Swiss homes have a raclette grill. In the same spirit as fondue, diners sit in a circle around the grill, armed with little individual pans. In goes a slice of raclette (along with any desired fixins’ – I love sliced pineapple) and under the grill it goes. When it’s ready, wooden scrapers are used to ensure that every bit makes it to your plate. And if that weren't enough, the top of the unit is equipped with a flat, open grill -- perfect for grilling sausages, prosciutto, veggies or baguette slices. Along with small, boiled potatoes, this cheesy dish is eaten alongside cornichons and pickled onions for digestion.

So the other night we decided to have a spontaneous, mid-week, semi-celebratory dinner party in honor of our good friend Nick, who was moving to Bogota, Colombia to do legal work for a year. Raclette seemed the natural choice. Not only is it interactive, easily assembled AND delicious, it’s one of the few dishes that makes you slow down, take your time and enjoy the experience.

Followed by a fresh green salad and a rustic apple tart, our friends were sent home with content bellies. It’s easy to see why this 700+-year-old tradition lives on.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cookie Swap

Julia Usher, author of the new book Cookie Swap, was in town this week as part of her whirlwind book tour. I saw her speak at a private food blogging event at the recently unveiled Sur la Table at The Bravern in Bellevue. (It’s really beautiful, by the way. Lots of space to move, unlike its sister at Pike Place Market). 
The book itself is impressive with over 50 charming recipes, gorgeous color photographs and loads of how-to’s from party themes to decorating tips. But even more impressive was her story.

As a Yale graduate, Julia worked for years in the math and sciences as a mechanical engineer. Despite her analytical, problem-solving personality, her true love was something she had cherished since childhood: baking. She grew up in a household where eggs were gathered, herbs were cut and everything was made from scratch - I’m talking no store-bought cookies in sight. And in this day and age of 30 minute meals, her mantra remains “the more time spent in the kitchen, the better!” 
She eventually decided to turn her passion into a career by enlisting in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. She went on to open a bakery where the wedding cakes tasted as delicious as they looked. It was a hit, but Julia kept moving. Not only is she now a food writer and stylist, she just added “first-time author” to her list of accomplishments. 

I love when the moral of the story is to follow your bliss.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Really Good Banana Bread

It never crosses my mind to make banana bread, probably because I’m not the world’s biggest fan of cake-y things. But how many time-tested ways are there to use almost rotten bananas? Slim pickins as far as I’m concerned. So when I noticed 4 very brown bananas on the counter this weekend, I knew that Tristan (who has a real soft spot for banana bread) would appreciate a loaf.

Banana/zucchini breads, muffins and things of that nature usually strike me as too sweet, too floury, too busy or too dry. If I were going to indulge my sweet tooth, they wouldn’t make it into my top 10, or top 20 for that matter. But I was determined to find a simple, good recipe without too many embellishments. 

This version, which I adapted from Simply Recipes, is ultra moist with a spice content that’s not too overpowering. Plus it’s made with half whole wheat pastry flour, which you’d never guess by the taste. Surprisingly, I loved it. So much so that I can't wait for the next batch of bananas to go bad.

Really Good Banana Bread
This recipe only requires a mixing bowl and a wooden spoon. Spices can be bumped up or nuts added if desired. Adapted from Simply Recipes.

4 ripe bananas, smashed
1/3 cup melted butter
Scant 3/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour

Preheat oven to 350°F; butter a parchment-lined 4x8 inch loaf pan.

In a large mixing bowl, mix bananas and melted butter. Add sugar, egg and vanilla; mix well. Sprinkle baking soda, salt and spices over the top and stir well. Add the flours last; stir to incorporate. Pour into prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 

Cool on a rack. Remove from pan and serve slightly warm slathered with salty butter (my personal favorite).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Beer and Chocolate Braised Short Ribs

I went to the farmers’ market on Saturday with a specific purpose: fresh, raw cream. Unfortunately, my love of leisurely weekend mornings got the better of me… again. La Boucherie was sold out by 10am. Damn! Next weekend calls for an alarm.

So I walked around for a bit, determined to go home with something delicious. And that’s when the sign from The Beef Shop caught my eye: grass-fed beef short ribs. This was semi-new to me; dare I splurge on such uncharted territory? If I remember correctly, I once made some slow-cooked BBQ pork ribs for a dinner party and they were delicious. I guess anything that simmers for hours in a tasty sauce has favorable chances. So I bought a few pounds and headed home to figure out what to do with them.

After consulting some reliable sources, I landed upon a this recipe by Dave Lebovitz, which was adapted from one by Dave Lieberman. Not only did it call for ginger, garlic, beer and hoisin sauce, he kicked it up a notch with chocolate and chili powder. This was clearly worth a try.

After the 4-hour process of seasoning, searing, simmering and baking (all while my stomach growled), I can confidently say that it was worth the wait. The sauce was ultra indulgent – chocolaty and rich - and the ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the tiniest pinch of orange zest would help cut through the richness and cause a true flavor explosion. Next time. For sure.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Baba Ganoush

As I’ve mentioned before, whipping up some homemade Baba ganoush, or Eggplant Caviar, has been on my to-do list for quite some time. Ever since discovering Zoey Catering's Melitzanosalata at Madison Market -- so creamy with whole roasted cloves of garlic -- I’ve had a one-track mind. Unfortunately, my good intentions haven’t lead to anything other than the discovery of rotten eggplants in the back of my refrigerator. Well no more, my friends!  

I have nothing against hummus but a girl can only eat so much (and it's absolutely ubiquitous!). This dip, on the other hand, has a distinct smoky flavor and a much softer texture. The eggplants do require roasting, which makes it more time-consuming than the dump-and-blend method of hummus, but it’s so worth it. And now that those beautifully purple eggplants are spilling over at the farmers’ markets, there’s really no excuse.

Baba Ganoush
This recipe can be easily adjusted to suite personal taste... a pinch of cumin, perhaps?

2 medium eggplants
2 heads garlic
Olive oil
1/3 cup sesame tahini
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly chopped parsley or mint

Preheat oven to 400°F. Pierce eggplants in several places with the tines of a fork.

If you have a gas stove, char the outside of the eggplants directly over the flame, turning often until evenly blackened. If you don’t have a gas stove, you can char them under the broiler or over a hot grill. If none of the above methods are available, skip this step altogether.

Slice 1/3 to a 1/2-inch off the tops of each garlic head, enough to expose most cloves. Place each head on a square of foil; drizzle each with one or two teaspoons of olive oil. Wrap loosely with foil.

Place garlic packets and eggplants on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast in the oven until eggplants are completely soft and have collapsed in on themselves, about 30 minutes. The garlic should be done around the same time (you want it to be completely soft when pressed). Remove from the oven and cool.

Squeeze whole cloves out of garlic heads; set aside.

Slice eggplants lengthwise and scrape out the pulp; place in a food processor. Add tahini, lemon juice, 5 or 6 roasted garlic cloves and salt; process until smooth (or leave a bit chunky if that’s how you like it). Adjust seasoning to taste.

Pour into serving bowl. Add remaining whole garlic cloves and stir to incorporate. Baba ganoush tastes best if it's able to chill for a few hours. Before serving, garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and freshly chopped parsley or mint. Serve with toasted pita chips, olives and feta cheese.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Strawberry Cream Tart

Our good friends Casey and Jen, who have the most adorable little boy Phineas, invited us over for dinner the other night. Even though I’m not a baker, I somehow always get assigned dessert duty, which is surprising since the last time we were there, I brought a complicated, from-scratch butterscotch pudding that was so über-sweet, our teeth practically fell out. I saw this as a chance to redeem myself.

When I think dessert, I rarely think cake. Instead, I have a total penchant for fruit tarts and custards. There were to be six of us at dinner so a tart seemed fitting. Since I wouldn’t have time to make it the following night after work, my mission was to find a recipe that could be made ahead of time and assembled the day of. And in my opinion, Deb of Smitten Kitchen is the dessert queen.

The Strawberry Tart -- whose crust and pastry filling can be made the night before -- caught my attention for obvious reasons. Plus the Pate Sucre with ground almonds and the pastry cream with real vanilla bean promised exquisite results (not to mention that it gave me the perfect excuse to snatch up the last of the season's strawberries).

Not only did we gobble up the entire tart, even little Phineas wanted seconds.

*Note: While it is wonderful as is, a simple fruit glaze (made by melting down fruit jelly and then brushing over the strawberries) would make this tart even prettier.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Broiled Eggplant Sandwiches

Before delving into remembrances of vacations past, I’d like to share this sandwich with you. After weeks of European indulgences, Tristan and I were in the mood for veggies. Something no-fuss but warm. So before heading off to the University District Farmers’ Market, we frantically flipped through 2 back issues of Gourmet for inspiration. The Grilled Eggplant Parmigiana Heros started waving and hollering at us immediately.

So we high-tailed it over to the market and picked up 2 beautifully purple eggplants (one for the sandwiches and one for the Baba Ghanoush
I’ve been hankering to make). With the addition of colorful Heirloom tomatoes, a fresh bunch of basil, a baguette and some provolone, we were cruising toward sandwich bliss.

This recipe could easily be made quicker by subbing in a prepared tomato sauce, but what fun is that? So minus the scratch sauce-making, this veggie sandwich is remarkably simple and finger-licking good.

Broiled Eggplant Sandwiches
My take on the Grilled Eggplant Parmigiana Heros in the September 2009 edition of Gourmet. Since we don’t have an outside grill, we used that trusted but underused oven function.. the broiler.

Makes 2 large or 3 regular sandwiches.

1 lb fresh tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for brushing eggplant slices

1 shallot or ½ small onion

Salt and pepper to taste

1 eggplant, cut into ½-inch thick slices

Crusty rolls, split

Thinly sliced provolone or fresh mozzarella
½ cup fresh basil leaves

Roughly chop the tomatoes and toss into a blender; puree until smooth.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add shallot/onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Pour in pureed tomatoes and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat broiler on high. Place eggplant slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush both sides with olive oil and lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place pan 6-inches below broiler and broil until soft and lightly browned, 3-5 minutes. Turn slices over and repeat on opposite side. Remove from oven.

Toast split rolls/baguette under broiler until just toasty (insides only). Remove from oven and spread sauce on the bottoms and top with broiled eggplant and sliced cheese. Return to broiler until cheese begins to melt. Top with fresh basil and additional sauce.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Brunch at Tilth

While I've been back from my vacation for over a week, I left little slivers of my heart in each place we visited. For over a month, my biggest questions involved what to eat, whether to go swimming and red or white. Needless to say, the transition back to the real world was inevitable bus nonetheless challenging.

In an attempt to lessen the blow, we treated ourselves to brunch at Tilth, an organically certified restaurant in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood serving New American cuisine out of a renovated craftsman home. Maria Hines, the executive chef and owner, not only received a 2009 James Beard award, her restaurant has been the recipient of national attention (Tilth was named one of the top 10 best new restaurants in the country by the New York Times).

I hadn't been t
o Tilth in quite some time and was eager to check out the ever-changing seasonal menu. From past experience, I knew that the Croque Monsieur -- served with a side of baby lettuces -- was divine, but the Russet Potato "Risotto," Dungeness Crab Fritatta and the Slow Cooked St. Judes Albacor Tuna were also entirely alluring. This is when our server came to the rescue. She answered all questions honestly, described each dish knowledgably and offered graceful suggestions. With her help, I knew that the Baked Dutch Blueberry Pancake with blueberry compote and farmer's cheese had my name all over it.

Typically, I am not one to order anything sweet in the morning (pancakes, french to
ast, waffles, scones... no thank you) but this concoction was extraordinary. The pancake itself, which puffs during baking and quickly settles into custardy goodness, was creamy and eggy in the middle and thin and crispy around the edges. The blueberry compote was beyond typical - it was almost buttery with the slightest tang of lemon. If there were one thing I could change, it would be to receive a heftier dollop of that smooth, creamy farmer's cheese. What a perfectly-matched compliment. (On a side note, even their drip coffee tastes uncommonly good -- the secret lies in local Caffe Vita blends).

A warm, welcoming atmosphere plus graceful service plus carefully prepared, thoughtful food.... life back in the real world isn't so bad after all.