Saturday, June 25, 2011

Warm Quinoa Salad with Fried Egg, Spring Vegetables and Herbs: A few small tweaks...

I forgot to set my alarm on Wednesday night.

I never forget to set the alarm. I'm anal about setting the alarm -- always checking and rechecking that the time is right and that the correct alarm has been activated. Sometimes, I even set two alarms -- the one by my bed and the one on my phone, and, yes, fine, there have been a few occasions when I've taken my mother up on her offer for a wake up call.

You know, just in case there happens to be a power outage and/or my cell phone alarm malfunctions and/or I some how manage to sleep through the blaring beeps coming at me from less than a foot away, but not the ring of my telephone.

It could happen.

So I was stunned when I woke up on Thursday morning to the sound of nothing (!!!) and to the sight of a bedside clock that read 7:53 am instead of 7:03 am. My first thought, as I ran like a mad woman in the direction of the shower, was, "I won't have time to eat breakfast!"

A close second was, "Should I skip putting on my makeup to save time?"

Both thoughts were equally horrifying to me.

It's not that I'm high maintenance. Oh no, no one could ever mistake me and my disreputable unpolished fingernails and perpetually wrinkled clothing for being one of those girls. I can scarcely be bothered to spend more than five minutes on my hair in the morning -- precisely the amount of time it takes me to blow it dry with my head dangled upside down.

But going without makeup is a completely different story. It's not an option.

Never an option.

I'm always shocked when I read those surveys in Glamour and other similarly girly mags where guys say they prefer "their" women sans makeup. Clearly these men haven't seen me when I'm fresh out of bed and sporting a splotchy complexion with highly visible pores and a bright red shiny nose.

It's like Rudolph the Pock-Marked Reindeer, I tell you.

Definitely not fit for human eyes. Especially not the eyes of my unattainable crush, who I just happened to bump into a couple weekends ago in my most vulnerable, ruddy-faced state.

Oh yes, he caught me on the one Saturday I decided to venture out of the house without makeup. In a bright green hoodie no less.

Like I said, never an option. At least not again.

So as I ran around my apartment on Thursday morning, I frantically choked down a nectarine and vanilla Greek yogurt instead of my usual oatmeal with peanut butter so I would have few precious minutes to smear some sustenance... on my face.

It doesn't take a lot of smearing -- a little foundation, a bit of bronzer, a few coats of black (occasionally plum) mascara, and then some subtle pink lip gloss. In less then five minutes, I go from Rudolph to... well, not-Rudolph.

Those few small tweaks completely transform my face. I feel like a completely new person.

And as my dear friend tells me with a touch of honesty that only a dear friend can get away with, "You look... different [when you don't wear makeup]."

We won't go into what she means by, "different."

So even though I've already written about a recipe with quinoa, asparagus, peas, egg, and shallots, I'm not at all hesitant to post another one. Because with a few small tweaks, those raw ingredients turn into something completely... well, different.

Whereas the previous recipe for Spring Fried Quinoa Rice was enlivened with garlic, soy sauce, honey, sesame oil; this Warm Quinoa Salad with Fried Egg, Spring Vegetables and Herbs gets its pizazz from arugula, basil, mint, lemon zest, lemon juice, and Parmesan.

Plus, I fry the egg and put it on top, instead of scrambling it into the quinoa.

Like I said, completely different.

And totally worth waking up for on those mornings when the alarm actually does go off.

Warm Quinoa Salad with Fried Egg, Spring Vegetables and Herbs
Inspired by recipe on WrightFood (brought to my attention by the amazing Esi from Dishing Up Delights)
Serves 1

1/4 cup quinoa
7 spears of asparagus, sliced on the diagonal
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
1 large shallot, minced
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
1 cup of fresh herbs, chopped (I use a mix of arugula, basil and mint)
Salt, pepper to taste
2 teaspoons olive oil

Rinse quinoa well. Bring 1/2 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the quinoa, reduce the heat, cover and simmer until quinoa has absorbed the water (approximately 15-20 minutes). Fluff with a fork and set aside to dry out a bit. The texture of the salad will be lighter if you let the quinoa rest a bit before tossing it with the rest of the ingredients.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss sliced asparagus with salt and pepper and roast until tender -- approximately 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add a teaspoon of olive oil and swirl to coat the base of the pan. Add the shallots and cook until just translucent. If using fresh peas, add them now, reduce the heat, and cover the pan for approximately 5 minutes or until peas just lose their bite. If using frozen peas, simply saute them with the shallots uncovered.

Once peas have reached their desired cooked state, reduce the temperature to low, and add the quinoa and asparagus to the pan. Toss to combine. Turn heat off, and stir in the lemon juice and zest, and fresh herbs. Plate, then clean out the pan to prepare the egg.

Heat the pan over medium-high heat. Once hot add the last teaspoon of olive oil and swirl it to coat the base of the pan. Crack the egg in the center, season with salt and pepper, and fry according to desired preference. I like to fry mine for a couple minutes on one side and then will flip over for a minute so the white on the other side gets completely set. Doing so, I'm still able to maintain the integrity of that precious runny yolk.

Place the fried egg on top of the (slightly) warm quinoa salad and then top with the Parmesan cheese. Eat immediately. And then make it to work. On time.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Gwyneth Paltrow's Corn Vichyssoise and Other Unacceptable Things

I'm not used to this.

Being ridiculously, deliriously, unacceptably happy.

Not that I was a complete basket case before. I certainly had more than my fair share of moments when life seemed like a summer picnic under a cloudless sky. They usually occurred when I was eating quinoa and/or drinking wine.

At, you know, a summer picnic.

But back "then" (and I use this term loosely because "then" seems to imply a period of time much further away than just four weeks ago) those highs came with some serious lows. The anti-summer picnic, if you will. A junior high cafeteria lunch before Jamie Oliver came around flashing his fresh produce and plain cartons of milk.

I never talked much about the cafeteria here and still don't really want to talk about it in concrete terms beyond saying that I had a challenging work situation. It made me cry. It made me angry. It made me frustrated that I wasn't "living up to my potential." The world was supposed to be my oyster, after all. Not someone else's oyster.

Yet even back "then" when I wasn't ridiculously, deliriously, unacceptably happy, I still felt like it was just a temporary blip -- a slight shadow on an otherwise sunny day. I still considered myself a positive person; I was just a positive person stuck in a bit of a rut.

I didn't want everyone to know about that rut. I wanted it to be my secret rut. That just happened to be slowly sucking the life out of my otherwise perfectly delightful existence.

So today, post-rut, I'm struggling to know exactly how to accept this (mostly) constant state of happiness. It can't really be normal for a person to actually like -- no love -- their job. Nobody is excited to get to the office in the morning. People don't actually look forward to reading and responding to work emails. I mean that's totally weird, right?

Being this happy scares me. It doesn't seem natural. I keep waiting for someone to do a take back -- to announce that I'm on "Candid Camera" or that it's all just been a dream. Because clearly this sort of thing isn't allowed. Life isn't supposed to always be a summer picnic. That's why there's such a thing as winter. And high-waisted pants. And olives. And Bacardi lemon rum.

I'm trying to let myself believe that this unacceptable happiness might actually be... acceptable. I mean stranger things have happened. I bought a romper and actually wore it. My brother got married and had a kid. Gwyneth Paltrow was on the cover of Bon Appetit. And her recipe for corn vichyssoise was actually good.

The kind of thing that would be perfect at a summer picnic under a cloudless sky.

Gwyneth Paltrow's Corn Vichyssoise
Serves 2
Adapted from the recipe in the June 2011 issue of Bon Appetit

Adaptations: I doubled the amount of leeks and quadrupled the amount of lemon juice, used sea salt instead of kosher salt, and finished the soup with basil olive oil instead of creme fraiche and chives. I also served the soup warm instead of chilled.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 medium leeks, white and light-green parts only, coarsely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 ears shucked corn, kernels cut from cobs, cobs reserved
1/2 cup coarsely chopped peeled potato
2 cups good-quality vegetable stock
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cube Dorot's frozen basil

Combine two teaspoons olive oil with 1 cube of Dorot's frozen basil. Set aside.

Heat one teaspoon of olive oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add corn kernels, reserved cobs, potato, and stock. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Increase heat to high and bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, cover with lid slightly ajar, and cook until the vegetables are very soft, about 35 minutes.

Discard corn cobs; let soup cool slightly. Working in batches, purée soup in a blender until very smooth. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl; strain, discarding solids. Return to the pot and bring back up to a simmer. If too thick, thin with water by 1/4-cupfuls. Once reheated to desired temperature, stir in lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Finish with basil oil.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Whole Wheat Fusilli with Grilled Nectarines and Ricotta: What I do when I'm not texting while driving

Exactly 72 days ago, I was pulled over and ticketed for texting while driving. At the time I was completely devastated -- I was embarrassed that I was, yet again, one of those "bad" people who gets ticketed, I was sickened by the cost, and I was furious that I'd been singled out for my delinquency.

"Everyone does it," I complained to friends, "Even my mom checks her text messages at stop lights! How am I so unlucky?"

Like a petulant child, I stewed and pouted over it for days. I found every excuse to talk about it -- to tell people my poor plight in exchange for their pity and assurances that yes, they text when stuck in traffic too.

"Why me?" I kept asking. "Why did I have to be the one to get caught?"

In my mind, it was just another indication of how my life is like a sitcom -- amusing for others to watch, but painful for me, the star, to experience.

A few days of textless driving later, I experienced what a certain former daytime talk show host calls an "aha" moment.

"What if I wasn't unlucky?" I wondered. "What if getting pulled over was actually the luckiest thing that could have happened to me? What if that ticket saved my life? Saved someone else's life because I'm no longer distracted by text messages?"

Suddenly I didn't feel like pouting any more.

Since getting that ticket, I haven't used my phone in my car at all. I haven't texted, I haven't tweeted, and aside from the one (legal) hands-free call I made to my mother when I got my new job, I haven't made any phone calls either.

Instead, I've been actually paying attention to the road and the other cars on it.

It's strange to not use the time it takes me to get from my office to my apartment to catch up with my mom. It's even stranger having to sit in traffic without the entertainment of Twitter to get me through those seemingly endless stretches of red brake lights. I don't know what to do with myself. Sometimes I actually catch myself twiddling my thumbs.

For the record, twiddling is not nearly as exciting as finding out what @MyLastBite had for her last bite (probably bacon).

So, of course, my mind starts to wander when I'm sitting there scanning the road for potential hazards and checking my rear view mirrors every few seconds like all those good drivers are supposed to do.

I start thinking about food.

I start thinking about what I want for dinner.

I start thinking about crazy recipe ideas for that dinner.

I start thinking about whole wheat pasta.

With ricotta.

And nectarines.

And then I have to go home and make it.

This recipe for whole wheat pasta with ricotta, grilled nectarines, fresh herbs, and edamame was born on a recent drive up the 405 from Orange County to Los Angeles. By the time I had reached my apartment (60 textless minutes later), I knew I had to make it for dinner that night.

And make it I did.

The sweet nectarines, fresh herbs and subtle ricotta found their perfect partners in the nutty pasta and edamame. Despite my initial qualms that I was really diving into the deep end with this strange conglomeration of flavors, I was completely enamored by the dish. I scraped the bowl. I photographed the heck of it.

And I used my phone to (legally) tweet about it on Twitter from the safety of my dining room table.

Whole Wheat Fusilli with Grilled Nectarines and Ricotta
Serves 2

2 cups dry whole wheat fusilli pasta (I prefer Bionature brand)
1 large or 2 small yellow nectarines sliced into 1/2 inch slices (approximate 1 cup)
1 yellow onion, sliced into thin slivers
1/2 cup shelled edamame, cooked according to package instructions
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh mint, minced
2 cups arugula
Salt, pepper
Olive oil

For onions: Heat large frying pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add a teaspoon of olive oil, swirling it to coat the entire surface of the pan. Add the onions and saute over medium to medium low hit, stirring frequently, until the onions are caramelized and come together in a some what gooey, jam-like clump (approximately 20-25 minutes). Add the teaspoon of white balsamic vinegar and a good shake of salt and continue letting it simmer over low heat until ready for use.

For ricotta sauce: Using a fork, combine ricotta, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk until smooth.

For nectarines: Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Add a splash of olive oil to lightly coat the surface, then place each slice of nectarine on the grills in the center of the pan. Cook over medium heat for approximately 2 minutes a side. When both sides have "grill" marks, remove and cut into bite-sized chunks. Reserve four whole slices for a garnish.

For pasta: Prepare fusilli in a large pot of salted water according to package instructions, taking care to not let it go past “al dente” since the pasta will cook more when mixed with the sauce. Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water, then drain.

To finish: Return fusilli to the pot and add the onions, ricotta sauce, edamame, arugula, and nectarine chunks. Add pasta water as needed to help thin the sauce to desired preference. Season with salt and pepper, then turn off the heat. Toss in the basil and mint and stir until just combined. Serve immediately garnished with reserved slices of nectarines.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Wild Salmon with Corn, Peas, Zucchini and Pea Puree, and How I Burned the Kitchen Floor

I burnt my kitchen floor last night.

I'm not sure how it happened exactly. Well, no, I do know how it happened, what I mean to say is I don't know how things progressed in that direction -- how I went from being in complete control of the cooking situation to burning the floor.

I had the whole thing planned out in my head. I was going to recreate the salmon dish I'd had at Akasha Restaurant in Culver City the previous night -- a special for the evening that involved a glorious piece of crispy-skinned copper river salmon strewn over a bed of fresh corn, peas, zucchini, cipollini onions, and pea puree. (I'm assuming the pea puree was Akasha's -- not Ed's.)

Either way, the dish (and pea puree) totally sung to me -- the cornucopia of fresh spring vegetables, the buttery salmon tucked under a salty chip-like skin, the clean flavors unmuddied by oil or overaggressive seasoning.

It was pure cooking at its finest. And I couldn't wait to have it again -- the next night.

It seemed relatively simple to make. I know how to boil and shuck corn. I know how to peel and roast cipollini onions. I know how to turn peas into pea puree (I'm excellent with an immersion blender).

The only question mark was the salmon -- and that essential crispy skin.

I'd recently read in Glamour's "How to do anything better guide" that the key to perfect, crispy salmon is to take some softened butter and rub it on the skin prior to cooking. The salmon should then be placed skin-side up back in the fridge for the butter to harden, before being transferred buttered side up to a sheet pan. According to the guide's consultant for the piece, Claire Robinson, the host of "5 Ingredient Fix" on the Food Network, the sheet should then be placed under the broiler for 8 minutes. "Presto -- foolproof perfect salmon," she writes.

It seemed easy enough, and I was totally with Ms. Robinson up until I reached the broiling stage. I buttered the slick salmon skin like an ear of corn, seasoned it with some salt and pepper, and returned it to the fridge for the "hardening" period. I finished prepping my other ingredients while it chilled and then readied myself for the final stage of the cooking process.

And this is was when things started to go horribly wrong.

My oven isn't the digital kind. It's a gas stove with a gas oven that has a pull-out broiler drawer -- a broiler drawer that I'm terrified to use.

I know it's irrational. I know it's completely crazy and neurotic of me, but I hate everything about that drawer. I shudder at the sound it makes when I turn the broiler on -- like the oven is coming alive and is going to start shooting out sparks like a fire breathing dragon. I can't stand the thought of putting food in that incinerator of a drawer, especially if it means placing said food on the broiler pan that comes with it.

So, I decided to crank up my oven instead. I figured if I roasted the salmon at 450 degrees, I'd still achieve presto, crispy-skin perfection, and I could avoid the horror that is the drawer.

It was a win win.

Or so I thought.

When I pulled the salmon out to check on it five minutes later, the skin was still flaccid and the inch-thick piece of fish was already starting to ooze white -- a clear sign that the salmon was close to being overdone. I yanked my baking sheet free from the hot oven and in a moment of panic, charged up the incinerator with hopes that a few moments in the evil broiler drawer would crisp things up.

Moving quickly, I pulled out the broiler sheet and set it on the floor, and replaced it with the baking sheet that already contained the salmon. I peered in at the blow-torch type flame that was now scorching the surface of the delicate fish.

It didn't look good.

Lest the salmon cook itself into a straw-like state, I removed the baking sheet and set it on a towel on the counter. I then reached for the broiler pan that was sitting in the middle of my kitchen floor to slide it back into place.

And that's when I saw it -- the ugly brown square-shaped mark on the linoleum.

I'd burned the kitchen floor.

I cursed the broiler. Cursed the pock-marked salmon skin. Cursed the pea puree that had turned a muddy green color while I'd been attending to the fish.

I slumped down at my dining room table, glass of Rosé in hand, feeling defeated.

"All that work for nothing," I thought, angrily scooping up my first bite of my not-so-presto-perfect dinner. I readied myself for disappointment, readied myself to throw the entire contents of my plate into the trash. Readied myself to kick the broiler right where it hurts.

Disappointment never came. Even with all the mishaps, my dinner was still good -- really good. Worth burning the kitchen floor good.

But I still won't be using the evil broiler again any time soon.

Wild Salmon with Corn, Zucchini, Peas and Pea Puree
Inspired by dish at Akasha Restaurant
Serves 1

6-ounce fillet of wild salmon, skin on
4-5 cipollini onions, peeled
1 ear of fresh corn
1 small zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
3/4 cup fresh (or frozen) peas
Handful of torn basil leaves
2 tablespoons lemon juice, divided
2 tablespoons chicken broth
Salt, pepper
Softened butter
Olive oil

For onions and zucchini: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss peeled cipollini onions with a splash of olive oil. Place in an oven-safe baking dish and sprinkle with salt. Roast for approximately 35 minutes, turning every 10 minutes. During the last 10 minutes, add the zucchini to the baking dish. Sprinkle with pepper and then roast with the onions until both are tender.

For corn: Husk corn and cook in 2-3 inches of boiling water for 3 minutes. Remove, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process and set aside until cool enough to handle. When cooled, cut the kernels from the ear and set aside.

For peas/pea puree: If using fresh peas, steam them in a vegetable steamer until just barely tender. (Frozen peas can be prepared in a microwave.) Using an immersion blender, combine half the cooked peas with 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons chicken broth. Reserve the rest to toss with the other vegetables.

For salmon: Rinse salmon under cool water. Pat dry, then season both sides with salt and pepper. Brush the skin side with softened butter, then return to the fridge for the butter to harden. Once hardened, place salmon skin side up on a baking sheet. Broil for approximately 5-8 minutes depending on thickness of salmon fillet.

For assembly: When you put the salmon under the broiler, combine corn, zucchini, onions and peas in a hot frying pan. Toss together over medium heat until warm. Turn off the heat, toss with the basil leaves and remaining tablespoon of lemon juice. Meanwhile, gently heat pea puree in small saucepan over low heat until just warmed. Spread pea puree over one side of the plate, heap the vegetables on the other side. Top with broiled piece of presto perfect crispy-skinned salmon.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Turban Man and Me

This is not a story about food.

This is a story about the Santa Monica bike path, a man in a turban and me.

I woke up unreasonably early this morning. I cringed when I saw the angular numbers on my alarm clock that read "6:15." I tried to fall back asleep -- tried to hush the thoughts away of everything I had to do before meeting my friend for lunch.

It was a futile effort. After approximately 25 minutes of willing my eyes to remain shut, I gave up.

"It's really better if I get up now," I reasoned as I tugged myself free from my tangle of pink sheets and trudged into my living room to find my running shoes.

"I'll avoid the traffic. I won't have to worry about the sun scorching my skin cells at the beach. I'll have time to go to the Santa Monica farmers' market after. I can get corn. I can get asparagus. I can get English peas." My thoughts stumbled out in a rush, desperate to erase the absurdity of getting up before 7 am on a Saturday morning.

I arrived in Santa Monica a little after 7:15. The sky was still a groggy grey and the bike path that is normally cluttered with joggers, bicyclists and Midwestern tourists was blissfully unadorned. I smiled as I began striding down the sidewalk -- past Casa del Mar, past the red and white Hot Dog on a Stick shack, past the pier.

"This is why I love coming out here," I mused as I surveyed the empty stretch of path ahead of me. No stoplights. No cars. No police officers pulling me over for jay-running.

On the Santa Monica bike path, I can just go. I can just run. And I can daydream to the point where everything else around me fades away into a blurry haze of nothingness -- grey like the sky.

I continued down the now familiar stretch that winds through a seemingly endless Sahara dessert of sand. Despite the early hour, there were still a few bicyclists and other joggers and walkers battling exhaustion with me. There was a man running approximately 25 meters ahead of me -- a man in a turban. He wasn't moving particularly fast. His feet were thumping the ground in a sluggish, uncoordinated rhythm, and I was gaining on him quickly. In just a few strides, I would easily pass him.

I picked up my pace as I ran by, eager to get away from the sound of his shoes clomping on the pavement.

"Terrible form," I thought as I turned up the volume on my iPod to drown out the increasingly grating noise. "My high school couch would not approve."

I continued speeding up -- trying desperately to escape it and escape him, the mysterious turban man. But it seemed that no matter how fast I ran, no matter how high I turned up the volume on Lady Gaga, the clip-clopping of his feet was still there. It stabbed a hole through my daydreams of what I was going to make with my asparagus, corn and English peas. It stabbed a hole in my blissful mood. It stabbed a hole in my quiet, idyllic run by the beach.

"He's not going to let me pass him!" I finally realized with alarm.

Every time I quickened my lightly-falling snowflake steps, he quickened his sledge-hammer steps too. Anger seeped into my straining muscle, my eyes descended into fierce narrow slits, and my jaw contorted into an aggressive, masculine posture. I was a pit bull ready to snap. And the man in the turban continued on my tail like a freeloading roommate.

"I will break you," I thought as pushed my legs to move even faster. I was flying down the bike path now -- running faster than I have in months -- possibly years. I was channeling Prefontaine. I was running with the Buffaloes. I was running like I was Forrest Gump.

But he wouldn't be broken.

I looked desperately to the people biking and running in the other direction for sympathy. I wanted them to yell out in my defense, "Hey turban man, stop harassing that poor girl. Just let her run. Dude."

But they didn't yell. They didn't come to my rescue. They waved. They smiled. They cheered him on.

They all seemed to know him. They all seemed to love the turban man.

I did not.

I whipped around, squared my face into my fiercest angry runway look and snarled, "Stop riding my ass! Run your own race!"

I restrained myself from adding, "freak."

The turban man stared at me with a blank expression -- his tan, bearded face not giving away any emotion. Despite my outburst, he made no effort to slow down or run ahead. He remained stoically in his place -- directly behind me.

When I reached my turnaround point at 26 minutes -- approximately four minutes faster than I had the week prior -- I whipped around without hesitation. I was not going to continue playing his sick game. I wanted peace, dammit. But his face haunted me for the rest of my hour long run. It was glued in my head -- seeping into my daydreams like a viscous odor.

I had to tell someone about him -- someone who would share my horror at the man who wouldn't be passed.

As soon as I picked up my friend for lunch this afternoon, the story came tumbling out. I made dramatic pauses, I varied the inflection of my voice, I arched my eyebrows up and then down for further animation. I couldn't wait for her to gasp and groan in sympathy.

But she didn't gasp. Or groan.

"He's famous!" She shrieked. "He plays a guitar!"

And, according to Wikipedia, his name is Harry Perry.