Thursday, May 27, 2010

Adventures in Baby Blue Buttercream

When I was a little girl, someone told me something that changed my life. I wish I had a story for you about who said it, when, and where, but the truth is, I don’t remember. The important thing to know is that I never forgot the message and this is what it is:

 Life is about the experiences.

This has become one of my guiding principles, and is deeply embedded in my decision making process. So when the opportunity comes along to, say, go camping with 60 other food bloggers, ride in a Porsche 911 with the top down through the San Bernardino mountains, or go to an Aerial Tissu class with an old (young) friend, I say YES.

I did all 3 of those things, in one fabulous LAX weekend. And it. Was. AWESOME! I got picked up at the airport by Pamela from My Man’s Belly—a delicious, smart, funny, and sassy blog that chronicles her kitchen adventures and relationship advice. Pamela knows what's up when it comes to the web, and she's just as funny in person as she is on her blog. Together we zipped through the mountains to Camp Blogaway--a food bloggers bootcamp. We were greeted by our hostess and fearless leader, Patti Londre, of Worth the Whisk.

Patti is one of those amazing multi-talented people-- you know, the  super capable, accomplished, organized, interesting, AND hilarious type. Wow. With all her connections and know-how she brought together a great group of food bloggers, teachers, and sponsors, the latter of which kept our bellies full with their generous donations of food (thank you Lindsey Olives, National Onion Association, Zespri Kiwifruit, and Mad Housewife Wines, among others). One of the most valuable parts of camp was the sponsors' generous insight into how bloggers and advertisers can navigate this brave new world, ethically and harmoniously. If that's not a can of worms, I don't know what is.

Wilton--the mecca of cake decorating supplies--brought their queen bee, Nancy Siler, to lead us in a cake decorating workshop. It was arts n' crafts Camp Blogaway-style. Oh what fun! There were frosting and pastry bags galore, complete with brownies, cupcakes, and cookies on which to practice our new tricks. I dove straight for the baby blue buttercream and stuck with it. My theme: Senior Prom circa 1978.

I was inspired by memories of my older brother in a powder blue tuxedo and ruffled shirt (sorry Mike). The creations were pure eye candy, like this cupcake by Greg of Sippity Sup:

We spent the whole, glorious weekend up there in Big Bear, with dazzling sunshine dappling the forested hiking trails. In addition to all the fun activities, great food, and laughter, we spent a lot of serious time with our thinking caps on. Art Ramirez spent the whole of Saturday helping to make us better photographers. The first thing he told us was to take our cameras off "Auto" mode--eeeek!

"Auto mode," he explained, "Is for babies, birthdays, and Bigfoot."

It was a fantastic workshop. The best I've ever taken. Thanks to Art's generous, humor-spiked guidance a room full of mostly non-pro photographers learned how to better use our cameras. You can learn some of Art's digi-cam rules of thumb here. Hopefully you'll get to enjoy the fruits of his labor through my photos-- if I can ever figure out this new lens, light box, and the odd lighting issue in my new blue kitchen.

It was a huge treat for me just to be there, thanks to Patti's generous donation to the IACP silent auction, where I bid on, and won passage to Camp Blogaway. I met some brilliant food bloggers, and made some wonderful new friends. I can't wait to go back next year.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you. As My Man's Belly and I "Porsched" our way back down to LA, making the requisite In-n-Out Burger pit stop (animal-style, of course), I met up with a dear old friend, who brought me along to her Aerial Tissu class. Kim has been practicing for close to a year now, and can do amazing things.

I learned quickly that it's much harder than it looks, but still was able to climb the silk and learn some fun tricks. After that, and some Chicken n' Waffles at Roscoe's, my trip to LA was complete. I'll miss the smell of those California Pines, the wind through my hair in Pammy B's rag top, and the view of the neighbor's yards from 12 feet up the aerial silk. But there are always more adventures to be had. All have to do, is say YES.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Shrimp and Avocado Rangoons with Grapefruit Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce

CALLING ALL AVOCADO LOVERS!! Hold onto your socks because they're about to get knocked off.

A couple weeks ago, I heard about this recipe contest: The Adaptable Avocado Challenge put on by Avocados From Mexico . The challenge: Come up with an avocado recipe that is new and different. No cilantro. No guacamole. No Mexican food (except avocados from Mexico, of course).  

One thought blazed through my head: ACCEPT THIS CHALLENGE.

For both Hubs and I , avocados are our "Desert Island" food. I would estimate we eat, oh, about a barn-full every year. So we worked on this recipe together. Hubs has a bright and daring palate. He's the dressing and marinade man in the house. My flavors are more feminine. I like to take quality ingredients, and amplify their inherent flavor. When our forces combine in the kitchen, it's usually a winning combination. 

I elevated the avocado flavor in these rangoons with a little soy, a kiss of fresh ginger, and the right amount of salt and white pepper. Bites of briny shrimp add a toothsome texture to the rich, creamy filling. Hubs jazzed up our first attempt with the addition of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice in this easy and delicious sweet and sour sauce. He also suggested a bit of wasabi in the filling. I fretted over the addition of such a strong flavor. This recipe needed to be an homage to our beloved avocado. Would it overpower? But I've learned to trust his ideas when it comes to creating flavor profiles, so I gave it a shot. WOW. You'd never know it's there, but the subtle undertone of horseradish makes magic in your mouth. Put that filling into a bubbly-crisp wonton skin, and add the zing of a sweet-sour-bitter-salty dipping sauce. Yep. It's there. After 3 re-tests to tweak the flavor balance, this is a blue-ribbon recipe. I hope the judges agree... 

So, without further adieu, I present to you a Ginz and Hubs Production (wish us luck!):

Shrimp and Avocado Rangoons with Grapefruit Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce
(a full batch makes 35-40 rangoons)

2 medium, fully ripened Hass Avocados from Mexico (about 1 cup mashed)
1/2 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger root
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon wasabi paste
1 - 12 ounce package wonton wrappers
1 egg white
6 cups oil for frying (canola, peanut, or vegetable)
Grapefruit Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce (recipe below)

You will need a pastry brush and a candy/deep-fry thermometer.

In a small bowl, combine diced shrimp with ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, kosher salt, white pepper, and wasabi paste. Stir to combine and set aside.  

Dice the avocados, and in another small bowl mash with a fork or potato masher. A little lumpy is good. Add to shrimp mixture and stir to combine.

Prepare a clean workspace on which to build rangoons. Place eggwhite in a small bowl and have a pastry brush handy. Place wonton skins under a damp towel so they remain pliable. Working in batches of 4, brush wonton skins with a thin sheen of egg white using pastry brush.

Place 1 1/2 teaspoons filling in the center of each wonton.

Fold crosswise into a triangle and gently press the edges to seal. Bring the two outermost corners together and pinch to seal. If necessary, use a dab of eggwhite as "glue".

On stovetop, pour oil into a heavy 5-quart pot, and clip candy thermometer to edge of pot. Tip: Make sure everything is bone-dry; water makes hot oil splatter and pop.The base of the thermometer should be submerged but not touching the bottom of the pot.  Watch the temperature closely. When it reaches about 250 degrees Fahrenheit, reduce the heat to medium. Bring oil to 325 degrees. Working in batches, add about 8 wontons to the oil. Fry for 3 minutes, at 325, flipping halfway through.

 Remove with a slotted spoon and let drain on paper bag or paper towels.

Wontons can be held in a warm oven until all are ready to serve. Serve hot, with Grapefruit Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce.

Grapefruit Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce
(makes about 2 cups)

1/4 cup freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup rice vinegar (unseasoned)
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/8 teaspoon red chili flakes
3 - 1/4 inch-thick slices fresh ginger root (quarter-sized coins)
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons cornstarch

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Whisk to combine. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat and set aside. Remove ginger coins before serving.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dark Chocolate-Dipped Coconut Macaroons: Some Thoughts on the JOY of Cooking

Ahhh... the smell of toasted coconut filling your house on a late Sunday morning. The Splendid Table podcast is on in the background, and slippers are on your feet. The clouds are telling you that the kitchen is the place to be, and the promise of something sweet fills the air.

There's been a lot of discussion going on lately in the culinary world, thanks to this on-stage moment with Michael Ruhlman and Karen Page (here's the video clip), about this idea that we have no time to cook. Is it true? Or has the convenience industry convinced us that it's true for their benefit? Honestly, I don't know. It's probably both. But what I do know is that the ability to cook-- to bake a batch of cookies, to shake a simple salad dressing, to fry an egg--  is such a gift. I can't think of a more influential factor on the "Quality-O-Life Meter" than food.

I noticed that while I was making these macaroons, following a very simple (and very good) recipe on the back of the Baker's Angel Flake Coconut bag, a thought ran through my head like the occasional passing car on a neighborhood street: Am I doing this right? Am I doing this right? Am I doing this right?

It's true, after 10 years of professional cooking experience in some very classy places, after a culinary degree, after a whole lotta years cooking at home, I still often wonder, Am I doing this right?

And if someone like me, who's life revolves around food, is wondering that....what must the rest of America be thinking? I'm talking about the millions of people who think they can't cook, because of time or ability.

I often hear people say things like, "I'm a terrible cook. I can't boil water. I burn toast." Stuff like that. The first meal I served my family (circa age 9) was a macaroni salad I had scribbled down from "The Cajun Chef" (remember that guy?!) on PBS. It was AWFUL!! My family ate it with gusto, in one of the most generous gestures of love and support I've ever received. I was devastated with my failure.

But I kept at it. I learned a few tricks. The more I practiced, the less I failed. But still, all these years later, I DO sometimes fail. The pressure I felt coming out of culinary school, to always create something earth-shattering, innovative, and gourmet, was tremendous. It took a long time to get over that, and to accept the fact that although I occasionally like to put on a grand culinary performance, what excites me most about food is good home cooking, prepared with love. Ultimately, the lesson I learned is that if I have the POTENTIAL to create great food, I must first be willing to take chances, to allow myself to FAIL. The pressure we put on ourselves to put a masterpiece on the table is kind of a wasted opportunity. It takes the JOY out of cooking.

If I could tell my friends who claim they can't cook, one thing, it would be this: lighten up.

Saying "I can't cook," after a few failed attempts, is like sitting in front of a piano for the first time, and throwing up your hands because you can't play Bach. Practice doesn't necessarily make perfect. We're humans. We make mistakes. We over-salt the sauce, and forget about the croutons in the oven, and leave the fish on the grill a little too long. But if we come to ourselves with a little compassion, allowing the occasional car of insecurity (Am I doing this right??) to roll down the street with nothing more than a compassionate can be one of the most wonderful, and lasting gifts in a person's lifetime. A teacher. A lover. A comfort. A healer. A giver.

There I go again, getting all philosophical on you, and I'm probably preaching to the choir. I just wish every cook could know the joy I feel in the kitchen, even in spite of the occasional, inevitable bit of stress.

So, those Macaroons...turns out I WAS doing it right. They were delicious. Crisp-chewy and toasty-brown on the outside, moist and aromatic coconut goodness inside.

As I mentioned, the recipe is taken directly from the back of the Baker's Angel Flake Coconut Bag. I've made this a few times and can see no room for improvement. Hey, if it ain't broke...

These are the chewy-dense kind of macaroons. I make them about 3X bigger than the recipe recommends, bake for 30 minutes rather than the recommended 20, and then melt dark chocolate chips in the microwave and dip 'em. I also made some littles, flattened them into rounds, and made a sandwich-style macaroon. All shapes and sizes are welcome.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Portland Food Carts: An Eat-Along Adventure

If you are human and eat food, you've heard about the food cart scene in Portland. In one of those fateful cosmic events that leads to huge success, the collection of Portland food carts had grown quite praise-worthy, just as the the economy took a blazing nosedive. Suddenly, the $6 street meal went HUGE. The lure of self-employment and low-overhead inspired investment bankers and the like to drop the briefcase and pick up a spatula. While businesses across the board were gasping for breath after the economic sucker-punch, the mobile food units of Portland were growing fast (about 30% in 2009).

It's a hopeful story about the unexpected gifts born of adversity, but that's not why you should go. You should go, because street food is GOOD. Other cities, like NY, LA, SF, NOLA, and MSP, have embraced the food cart concept with open arms, so you don't have to travel to P-town for a good taco or falafel. That said, Portland's scene is especially awesome, and has inspired many a food cart in other locales.

I may have mentioned something in my last post about how much I love Portland (still recovering from P.O.S.) ... So, as one more blog-post homage to my new favorite city, I want to give you a PDX food cart breakdown.

First, one of the best resources if you're lucky enough to hit the scene is the Food Carts Portland website. This will help you figure out what there is to eat in your 'hood. 

I went on a walking tour of Portland's downtown street carts as part of the IACP Conference. We literally ate ourselves into a stupor, and I feared I may have to purchase one of these to get through the rest of the conference. This merely scratches the surface but it will give you a window into what the fuss is about:

Get a bunch of culinarians together and what's the first thing we want?

Yep, PORK. We kicked off the tasting with the Porchetta Sandwich from The People's Pig. Uber juicy. Napkins required. Porchetta, I've noticed, is kinda hot these days in the food world. It's a savory Italian pork roast, including meat, fat, and skin of the pig, seasoned with herbs and slow-cooked until melty-goodness stage is reached.

With what could we possibly follow that?

Yep, that's a 10 inch wiener.
(tee hee)

Bro Dogs serves up crazy good hot dogs and sausages in a special bun they call a "Panagle"-- part panini, part bagel. It's fluffy and sturdy enough to hold a heck of a lot of toppings, but honestly, just a plain bro dog with mustard is totally righteous on it's own.

Right next to Bro Dogs is the perfect morning-after spot: The Brunch Box on SW 5th and Stark. This place serves up burgers and sandwiches that will cure (or at least sedate) the nastiest of hangovers. We tried the "Youcanhascheeseburger":  A burger patty with pickles and the works, served between two grilled cheese sandwiches made with Texas toast. The "Redonkadonk Burger" is all that PLUS egg, ham, Spam, bacon, and more American cheese, and no I'm not kidding.

Our next stop was Potato Champion:

Here's where it gets really crazy:

Poutine. It's a French-Canadian thing. French fries, seasoned gravy, and cheese curds. You know you want some.

This next stop (yes, we're still eating) is one of the innovations that makes the new food cart scene so interesting.
What exactly is that, you ask? Well here's what it looks like:

That's a taco, stuffed with Korean-style Bulgogi Beef, topped with sesame cabbage, bean sprouts, cilantro, and a side of Kim Chi. There's a definite addiction factor. I wish I had been hungrier, but as you can see we had already eaten an obscene amount of food, and my taste receptors were starting to blur from over-indulgence.  

But wait, there's more:


That's Ziba. She rolls the pita by hand, into a strudel-thin dough, and then fills them with different combinations of meat, cheese, and vegetables. This is a very popular cart. I had a taste of Ziba's spinach and cheese pita. It was wonderful, and not at all what I expected when I heard the word Pita. Crackly and brown in spots, tender and chewy in others. Mmmmm....lots of love in those pitas. Can't wait to go back on an empty stomach. 

That was where about half of us threw in the towel, while the rest of the gang continued on to Cacao for some drinking chocolate. You know it's bad when you don't even have room for chocolate. All week, the conference was abuzz with Cacao's chocolaty beverages, but sadly I never got to try.

There are a couple more places I must mention. First, Spella Caffe. On our way to the food carts we stopped here for some serious coffee, and by serious I mean, WINE SERIOUS. They have a huge passion for beans here, and offered us perfectly brewed steaming cups from a small coffee grower in India. If you're serious about coffee, don't miss Spella while you're in Portland.

Finally, I had heard about this little place that served only one dish, done perfectly: Chicken and Rice at Nong's Khao Man Gai. Nong is from Bangkok, and gives herself fully to this simple, beautiful dish. This is how her menu describes it:

"Poached chicken with rice cooked in chicken stock. Served with soybean sauce (mixed with garlic, ginger and chilies) Bland soup served on the side to complete the dish. "

I loved this place. It was my last pit stop before hitting the road out of Portland, and it was a meal with so much heart. It gave me what I call, "Happy Tummy", and got me all the way back to Montana.

The End
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