Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Review: The Summertime Anytime Cookbook and Mushroom and Leek Soup

Summer may not officially begin until the solstice on June 20, but what we consider the summer season in the United States kicks off on Memorial Day weekend. So naturally, now is a great time to talk about a new summer-themed cookbook. Written by Dana Slatkin, chef at Shutters on the Beach, a restaurant in Santa Monica, California, The Summertime Anytime Cookbook has some simple, fresh ways to do California cuisine even if ocean breezes don't necessarily blow your way.

The book is full of color photos of many recipes, plus a few beach shots that will make you sigh on a chilly night. The organization is novel, grouping recipes into chapters that evoke a certain mood or occasion: Sunny Days, Cloudy Days, Balmy Nights, Stormy Nights and Misty Mornings. At first I thought the concept was a little silly, but I quickly began to enjoy thinking about the dishes with this mindset. It's a neat trick that provides a context in which you'll view the recipes. Flipping past chicken breasts with smoky lentils; butter bean salad with oven-dried tomatoes, black olives and pesto; and apple-jack (as in Monterey jack cheese) pie with ginger custard sauce in the Stormy Nights chapter, I envisioned myself in a warm kitchen as the wind whips outside and rain lashes the windows making Slatkin's radicchio soup with smoked mozzarella cheese.

The majority of the recipes are simple and easy to pull off even if you don't have access to fabulous California produce. If ingredient substitutions are not suggested, the casual, easy-going feel of the book should encourage you to swap broccoli for broccolini or frozen corn for fresh. I like the advice Slatkin gives in the headnotes to the recipe for wild mushroom and leek soup:

This soup is pure mushroom indulgence. Once pureed, it is so creamy that you could easily omit the cream and never miss it.

Oh, you don't say. If you recall my love for pureed veggie soups, you can understand why I chose this recipe (provided below) to try out. I was skeptical about the level of "pure mushroom indulgence" I was going to experience, but I can honestly say that the soup was simply, deliciously mushroom-y, as promised. With no cream, it was still thick and rich, if not a very lovely color. Swirl some sour cream on top and it's perfectly presentable. Very easy and definitely something I will make again.

I also tried a "Cloudy Days" recipe for lemon-ginger string beans, which was a new-to-me, yet low-maintenance, version of a vegetable I don't usually get excited about. Scattered throughout the book are cute bits of Martha Stewart-ish lifestyle advice on "beach table chic" or "six uses for a bucket of sand." These bonus tidbits might be an added draw to some people, but the collection of 130 recipes plus photos doesn't need much enchancement. I'm looking forward to reliving the California vibe of my formative years (I grew up just south of Santa Monica) by making Tomatillo, Chile and Bean Chowder; Truffle-Scented Salmon with Mustard Vinaigrette; and Strawberry-Rhubard Cobbler (desserts aren't neglected here, including fruit-focused treats, as well as things like Peanut-Butterscotch Crunch Bars).

If summertime can be an escape from work, routine and responsibility, this book plays off that mystique to create a culinary escape. Through the accessible recipes, you can transport yourself to a Southern California beach, basking in the sun and reveling in the moist, salty air. This is a book you'll be happy to curl up on the couch dreaming of vacation with, or turn to for new salad ideas, simple fish dishes or inspiration for your haul of summer produce.

Wild Mushroom and Leek Soup
Adapted from The Summertime Anytime Cookbook by Dana Slatkin

If you want to use heavy cream, add one cup along with the sherry. Pacific Foods makes a very good mushroom broth available at Whole Foods market and many other stores. For vegetable broth, lately I've been loving the rich, dark version made by Kitchen Basics, available in supermarkets. Any kinds of mushrooms would be good; I used a mix of portobella, white and shiitake.

1 tbs. unsalted butter
1 tbs. olive oil
1 1/2 lbs. mushrooms, chopped
3 to 4 large leeks, white and light green parts, chopped
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Pinch cayenne pepper
6 cups mushroom broth or low-sodium vegetable broth
2 tbs. dry sherry or lemon juice
sour cream for serving
chopped fresh chives for serving

In a large pot, heat the butter and oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until they release their juices, then raise the heat to medium high and cook until liquid evaporates and mushrooms are soft and beginning to brown.

Reduce heat to medium, add the leeks and cook until soft. Season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Add the broth, bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Add the sherry and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes so vegetables get very soft and flavors develop. If you think too much liquid is evaporating, cover the pot for a portion of this time.

Puree soup in batches in a blender (I used an immersion blender, but I think a traditional blender may give a smoother texture--it's up to you). Return soup to the pot and heat thoroughly without boiling to avoid splatters. Ladle into bowls and garnish with sour cream and chives.

The Summertime Anytime Cookbook was sent to me for review by the publisher, Clarkson Potter.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Easy Sweet and Sour Cocktail Meatballs

Finally, I have a semi-sensical reason to post this meatball recipe! I actually made these ridiculously easy, totally delicious sweet and sour cocktail meatballs when the Super Bowl was on. It would have been nice to post about them before the game, but since that did not happen, I was waiting for one of those occasions when people are looking for easy appetizers to serve—like Memorial Day.

I’m heading off to Key West (we’ve live in Fort Lauderdale for almost 4 years and never been!) this weekend for scuba diving, pie (!) and absolutely no work issues to worry about—and maybe a Margarita, you know if the spirit moves me. But, if you’re having a party or a cook out and want to add a little more meat to menu, this one’s for you. It took me forever to find a recipe for sweet and sour meatballs because I was searching for Swedish meatballs and wondering why all the recipes I found were not at all what I had in mind. For some reason, I thought Swedish and sweet and sour were the same thing, but alas, no.

When I finally located an easy one on, I didn’t really care that it did not sound to me like the ultimate meatball recipe—I just liked that it was easy. Well. Despite the fact that these take no weird ingredients and very little time and effort, they are totally delicious and addictive. It’s that secret—or not so secret—ingredient, Heinz chili sauce and a good hit of brown sugar. You don’t have to fuss around frying the meatballs first; just simmer them in the sauce where they become moist and wonderful. You can make this ahead and reheat it anyway you like. Put out a jar of toothpicks and they will disappear faster than Tom Brady’s dreams of a perfect season.

Sweet and Sour Cocktail Meatballs
I adapted this recipe from one on It called for garlic powder, which I don’t like and don’t have, so we seasoned our meatballs like we tend to season basic burgers. You can use just salt and pepper; adobo seasoning; chili powder or cayenne pepper; or a few pinches of dried herbs. We cooked a tiny bit of meat in a skillet to check our seasoning. I recommend this easy extra step, so you can go forward with the confidence that your big batch of meatballs is going to be perfectly seasoned. I haven't tried these with turkey, but I think it would work well, and the cooking method would keep the meat pleasantly moist.

1 lb lean ground beef
1 tsp. onion powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 egg
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (seasoned or unseasoned)
12 ounces chili sauce (such as Heinz)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Combine beef, seasonings, egg and breadcrumbs. Cook a small patty to check seasoning and adjust if needed. Form into small meatballs.

Pour the chili sauce into a large, heavy skillet or saucepan; fill the chili sauce bottle with water, shake well and add to skillet. Add the brown sugar and lemon juice; bring to a simmer.

Add the meatballs to the sauce; cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until cooked through. If you leave them on longer, it’s okay. Transfer to a bowl and serve right away or cover and chill and reheat in the microwave.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tilapia with Orange, Almond and Olive Gremolata

As a consultant, Mike travels every week to a client site. He leaves painfully early Monday morning and comes home on Thursday night. Sometimes, he has a two-leg flight and doesn’t get back until 11:30 or midnight. Some lucky weeks, he gets back around 7:45, so I get to plan a nice dinner!

When he’s away, Mike either eats out with colleagues, trying to stick to semi-healthy menu items or gets room service, which is usually a club sandwich. By the end of the week, he’s craving healthy, homemade food. That’s fine with me, and that’s what I would be cooking anyway.

As I’ve mentioned, I have been on a soup kick lately, but last week I wanted something different. I had seen this recipe in Wednesday’s New York Times food section, and writer, Melissa Clark, couldn’t sing its praises (or its compatability with Campari) enough. After reading over 600 words on her enhanced interpretation of gremolata—the Italian condiment of garlic, parsley and lemon zest, often used to finish Osso Bucco—enhanced with juicy orange, good olives and roasted almonds, I was ready to give it a try.

I tend to cook fish fillets simply. Salmon, with its stripes of healthy fat, hardly needs more than salt and pepper when roasted. So, it was nice to do something that looked a bit more special, yet was as easy as a fish dish should be. All you do is mash some orange zest into a chunk of butter, spread onto firm white fish (I replaced her striped bass with very economical and delicious tilapia) and roast. Then you top it with the gussied-up gremolata.

I could have eaten the gremolata by itself, by the spoonful. The almonds and orange pieces were nice additions, though the combination of almonds and olives was not quite as transcendent as Clark suggested in her article. The citrus butter sounded like a good idea, but it didn’t do much to flavor the fish—I think it mostly rolled off in the oven. The very pretty gremolata topping provided plenty of flavor, but to me, the two elements--fish and relish--just didn’t mesh as well as I would have liked. But, if the gremolata appeals to you, try it! It’s easy to toss together, and I think it would be good with chicken, pork or even pasta, now that I think about it.

I didn’t do anything different really, so here’s the link to the original recipe. It’s nearly always worthwhile to try something new, and there tend to be more hits than misses in cooking. What recipes have you tried lately that sounded delicious, but just didn’t fly on (or maybe I should say, "off") the plate?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Lemon Lovers' Lemon Bars

These are the lemon bars I’ve been craving! I always loved my mom’s recipe, which is virtually identical to the one in my red Betty Crocker cookbook. However, as my tastes and preferences have changed, I outgrew the classic. The shortbread crust is delicious, but it loses its crisp, flaky texture so quickly. There wasn’t much I could do about that, but mostly I just wanted more lemon.

Some people like the shortbread layer and the lemon curd layer of a lemon bar to be roughly equal in size. I have no objection to that, but I personally want a thick, soft lemon layer and just enough shortbread to provide a sturdy base. Two weeks ago, I made a version that contained more lemon than the classic version, but it still wasn’t quite enough. I also used Meyer lemons, which were surprisingly bad for this particular recipe. Their signature lack of tartness takes away that tangy acidic quality that I feel is essential to a good lemon bar.

Looking for a method for lemon bars with a thicker lemon layer, I stumbled on Smitten Kitchen’s version of Ina Garten’s lemon bars. Ina packs her bars with sugar, but the woman created an impressive lemon layer that you can see in Deb’s great photos. Ina’s version, however, used too much flour for my personal comfort. I didn’t want anything remotely cakey, but I knew the flour definitely contributed to the bars’ great height.

I also used this recipe on Cookie Madness for inspiration, which uses comparatively little sugar and must make a wonderfully tart bar. I took ideas from both recipes, as well as the classic Betty Crocker version and came up with something I really love. These bars still have plenty of buttery shortbread, but they have more filling than the average bar and are very lemony. One key to the flavor is lemon sugar. It’s an extra step that you have to do one day ahead, but it’s ridiculously easy and so totally worth it. It also requires you to finely chop the zest in a food processor, so you won’t end up chewing on any stringy bits of zest in the finished bars. And if you love lemon, the fragrance of the sugar (not to mention a fabulous dessert) will be your reward.

I’m sending this post to Helen of Tartelette, who is hosting Sugar High Friday this month. The theme is citrus sweets, so if you’re in the mood to make something a bit more exotic than lemon bars, you’ll find tons of inspiration when she posts the round up toward the end of the month.

Lemon Lovers’ Lemon BarsThe lemon sugar must be made one day ahead--see step one of the recipe. If you don't have time, just use one cup of plain sugar and 1 to 2 tbs. zest when you mix up the filling--I've done it this way a couple times since developing the recipe, and it's still great. Also, note that you must lower the oven temperature after baking the crust.
Makes 12 or 16

For crust:
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks and chilled

For filling:
1 cup granulated sugar
zest of 3 lemons
1/4 cup plus 2 tbs. all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1/2 cup plus 1 tbs. lemon juice (3 to 4 lemons)

1. Make the lemon sugar: In a food processor, combine the granulated sugar and lemon zest; pulse several times, until zest is very fine. Transfer to a shallow container or baking sheet and let sugar dry out at room temperature for several hours. Cover and chill overnight.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8 x 8 baking dish with nonstick cooking spray or line with nonstick foil. In a food processor, combine flour, powdered sugar and salt; pulse a few times to blend. Add the butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some pea-size chunks of butter still visible. Transfer the crumbly mixture to the baking dish and press into the bottom and sides of the dish with your hands. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, or until lightly golden around the edges. Lower oven temperature to 325 degrees.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together the lemon sugar, flour and salt. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then whisk in the lemon juice. Whisk the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until thoroughly combined. Pour the lemon mixture over the hot crust, return to oven and bake for 25 to 28 minutes. The center should be set, but still quite gooey when poked with a toothpick (it will continue to set as it cools). Within a minute or two of taking the lemon bars out of the oven, run a thin knife along the edges to loosen; this allows bars to contract as they cool without cracking. Cool completely on a rack, at least two hours. Sift powdered sugar over the dish, cut into 12 or 16 bars and serve. To store, cover and chill.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Crab Cakes with Green Mango Salsa

Does anyone make crab cakes at home anymore? I don't think I've ever ordered one in a restaurant, but I know they are usually one of the most popular things on the menu. When I worked at Legal Seafoods, they were a perennial bestseller, appearing in, I believe, three different guises on the menu--appetizer, salad and main course. Everyone loved the crab cake.

I never order them, because there are so many things that can (and do) go wrong--too much bread, soggy crust, not enough flavor. And just because someone claims to use 1/2 pound of jumbo lump crab meat in every ginormous cake, that is no guarantee of flavor. So, since I have to admit that a good crab cake can be awfully tasty, we make them ourselves every once in awhile. Crab cakes are also an excellent excuse to make mango salsa--the luscious fruit has a natural affinity to the sweet crab meat, and a little lime makes everything sing.

I adapted the crab cake recipe from one I learned in a cooking class I took several years ago. It was all about fish, and I learned a lot, including some great ethnic recipes and a killer smoked trout dip. The mango salsa has no special secrets, but I will say that green mangoes or mango that aren't yet soft and ready for eating make the best salsa. You still get a little tartness to go along with the fruit's disarming sweetness, and the cubes of mango hold their shape better. I've suggested ingredient amounts for the salsa, but exact quantities aren't important as long as your proportions give you the flavor, heat level and texture you want.

Crab Cakes
Best quality canned crab meat is great in this recipe, but never buy the imitation stuff. I'd like to tell you what it's actually made of, but I'm a little afraid to find out. Old Bay is a seafood seasoning blend often sold by the fish counter in supermarkets, or with the spices; it contains salt among other spices, so none is added to the recipe. If you want to check your seasoning (which I'll often take the time to do with these kind of recipes), fry up one miniature crab cake first and add extra salt or spices if you like.

Makes about 6

2 tsp canola oil, plus 2 tbs
1/2 onion, chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten, plus one egg white if needed
1 pound crab meat
4 to 6 tbs Panko or breadcrumbs
1 tbs mayonnaise (light is fine; I use canola mayo)
1 tbs Old Bay seasoning
2 tbs chopped fresh cilantro, or parsley
1/4 cup all-purpose flour

For serving: Green Mango Salsa, sour cream

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat 2 tsp of the oil in a skillet over medium-low heat and cook the onion until soft. In a large bowl, combine the egg, crab, 4 tbs. panko or breadcrumbs, mayo, Old Bay, cilantro and onions; mix gently with your hands or a large spoon, leaving large chunks of crab intact. Try to form a patty, and if the mixture does not hold together, add additional breadcrumbs and/or the additional egg white (the recipe varies depending on the crab and its water content).

Form 6 crab cakes, cover and chill for at least thirty minutes or up to several hours (the purpose is to help the cakes stay together, but I have skipped this step before with no problems). When you're ready to fry, place the flour in a shallow bowl and dip each cake in flour, shaking off excess. Heat about one tablespoon of oil in a skillet over high heat and add half the cakes. Cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Repeating with remaining cakes, transfer to oven and bake 10 minutes or until cooked through. Serve immediately with salsa and sour cream.

Green Mango Salsa
In Thailand, a common street snack is unripe mango slices dipped in a mixture of sugar, salt and hot ground chile, and that combination partly inspired this salsa. Use a chile powder with flavor you like, whether it's mild or hot and smoky, such as ground chipotle. If you don't like heat at all, try smoky paprika.

1 green or underripe mango, diced
1 to 2 jalapeno chiles, diced (seeds optional)
1/4 cup chopped red onion
2 tbs chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground red chile powder
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Drizzle of olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lime, or to taste

Combine all ingredients. Serve right away or let salsa sit at room temperature for up to 30 minutes so flavors can blend.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Shellfish with Roasted Cauliflower, Raisins and Olives

This is a really tasty main dish that I made awhile ago and have had on my list of "blogs to write" ever since. It does that sweet and sour thing I like so much--think about eggplant caponata, the relish made with vinegar and raisins. Like caponata, this dish also has olives, which provide the saltiness that makes the sweet-sour combo really work.

I came up with this because we had half a bag of scallops and half a bag of shrimp in the freezer taking up valuable space. You could just as easily make this with all shrimp or all scallops. It's an awfully nice "in-between" dinner too. It's warm and satisfying, yet not heavy, with vibrant flavors that embody neither summer nor winter. Cauliflower is always somewhere to be found in the produce department and becomes addictive and yummy when roasted. Just do the roasted cauliflower portion of the recipe (add some curry powder along with the chili powder, if you have it), and you'll have an incredibly tasty side dish.

I've been cooking a lot of new things recently, but none are quite ready for the blog. I'm after the superlative lemon bar, which for me is at least 2 parts lemon layer to 1 part shortbread layer. I like the lemon to be a little bit jelly-like, not too creamy or starchy due to too much flour. I have a crust I like, but it's the lemon part that's tricky. If you have any ideas or recipes, send them my way.

Shellfish with Roasted Cauliflower, Raisins and Olives

This is delicious served over garlicky brown rice: In the saucepan that you cook your rice in, saute 2 to 3 cloves minced garlic and 3 or 4 thinly sliced scallions in olive oil and butter; add chicken broth and bring to a boil; add rice, salt and pepper and cook as usual.

Nonstick cooking spray
1 large head cauliflower, cut into florets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 to 1 1/4 pounds total large, shelled shrimp and sea scallops
1 medium red onion, chopped
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
16 kalamata olives, chopped
1 generous tablespoon capers, drained and roughly chopped
1/4 cup raisins
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 375. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and coat with cooking spray; arrange cauliflower on baking sheet and coat with cooking spray. Sprinkle cauliflower with salt, pepper and chili powder and toss well to coat; roast for 15 to 20 minutes or until tender and lightly browned. Transfer to a large, shallow serving dish and cover with foil to keep warm.

Meanwhile, heat about 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat; cook shellfish until opaque, about 1 to 2 minutes per side (shrimp may cook faster than scallops); season with salt and pepper. Add shellfish to dish with cauliflower.

Wipe out skillet with a paper towel and add remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil. Add onion, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft and light golden, 6 to 7 minutes. Add chicken broth, olives, capers and raisins; simmer until slightly thickened and reduced by a little over half. Add vinegar, stir to combine and add to dish with the cauliflower and shellfish. Toss gently, sprinkle with parsley and serve.