Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Two Chip Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies: A million memories

I've been baking cookies for as long as I can remember.

Growing up, it was a ritual in my household -- as normal as brushing our teeth before bedtime or watching "Full House" and "TGIF" on Friday nights. My mom would always use the same putrid green glass mixing bowl and follow the same recipe that she knew by heart. I would look on from my perch on a wooden bar stool next to the counter, studying her precise movements and absorbing every word of instruction.

"Always make sure to pack down the brown sugar like this," She'd say gently, as she'd press it into the measuring cup. "When we dump it into the bowl it should maintain its shape rather than immediately crumbling apart."

"It's important not to over mix the flour," She'd advise, carefully folding it into the batter with her favorite, slightly chipped plastic spoon.

"The chocolate chips go in last!" She'd smile, sliding a few stray pieces my way.

I loved those moments -- not just for the end result (cookies), but because I was spending time with my mom. And, likely, escaping less desirable household chores like pulling weeds in the garden or cleaning my room.

I loved it even more when my mom began passing the spoon to me -- letting me cream the butter, measure the cinnamon, and, eventually, crack the egg into the bowl without getting a single piece of eggshell in there with it (the ultimate accomplishment in baking).

Cookies were the first thing I learned to make by myself, they were the first thing we packed for road trips, and they were the default answer for any event or occasion. Father's Day. A visit from a relative. Breakfast.

While I've grown past the point where I think it's completely normal to eat three oatmeal cookies for breakfast in lieu of actual oatmeal, I still associate cookies with the celebration of both the mundane and the momentous. Even when the mundane is an insatiable craving that can't be satisfied by my standard small wedge of dark chocolate.

This past weekend I baked these cookies (my favorite oatmeal cookie recipe kicked up a few notches) for my brother and sister-in-law who just welcomed my newest little niece into the world. I gently pressed the brown sugar into my measuring cup, carefully folded in the flour, and finished with an indecent heap of both white and bittersweet chocolate chips, dried cranberries, and oatmeal. It felt as normal and natural as the days when I was watching my mom make the same studied motions with her favorite recipe.

These cookies taste like a million childhood memories at once. Of Saturday mornings splayed out on the couch watching reruns of "Saved by the Bell." Of driving to Fresno for the state cross-country meet in high school. Of visits to see my eldest brother in the dorms at college.

Moving forward, they'll taste of a new memory -- the first moment I saw my five-day-old niece asleep on the couch, my three-year-old-niece perched next to her, exclaiming, "Diana! Diana! Come see my new toys!", completely oblivious that I might want to see her new little sister too.

Someday I may teach both of them how to press the brown sugar into the measuring cups. I may show them how to gently fold in the flour without over mixing the batter. And, when their parents aren't looking, I'll slip each of them a few stray chocolate chips.

Two Chip Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Makes 20-24 cookies

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup brown sugar packed
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 extra-large egg, brought to room temperature
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups oatmeal
3/4 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup 60% cocoa bittersweet chocolate chips

Combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together to lighten the texture and make it easier to fold into the batter.

Place softened butter in the bowl of a stand mixer (or regular, large bowl if using a hand mixer). Add the brown sugar and beat until well-combined. Stir in the vanilla so the flavor can penetrate the butter, then beat in the egg until thoroughly integrated.

Carefully fold or stir in the flour on the lowest setting on the stand or hand mixer, then add the oatmeal, and both the white and bittersweet chocolate chips. Stir until just combined.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate at least an hour or, time-permitting, overnight. 

When you're ready to bake the cookies, preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Roll cold batter into golf ball-sized scoops and place a couple inches a part on a lined baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, rotating once to ensure even cooking. Remove from oven when set on top and just starting to turn a nice golden brown. Let sit on hot baking sheet for five minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Wild Rice Salad with Miso Dressing: A walk on the wild (West)side

None of us wanted to be there.

I could see it in their stilted postures, their tepid sips of wine, their silence that was nearly as deafening as the Top 40 music and screeching sirens of drunk conversations that were clogging the air in the wine bar like rush hour traffic on the 405.

I took another swallow of my acidic Zinfandel, cringing as the assertive presence of alcohol sliced at my throat. I set the wine glass back down on the black lacquered table patterned with condensation rings and leaned in so my three companions could hear me over the throbbing tones of Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend."

"It's a little loud," I said, not so much as an observation, but as a means of apology.

What I really meant was, "I'm sorry I took you here. And I'm sorry that you might contract an STD from your pleather bar stool."

My brother's friend shrugged. "It would be this loud anywhere on a Saturday night."

I appreciated the gesture of the shrug, her attempt to make me feel better about dragging her, my brother and his sweet girlfriend to the frat house of wine bars, but was secretly hoping she -- or anyone at the table -- would state the obvious. Would voice what was running through all our heads as we attempted to make headway on the astringent wine.

I'd been worried about this portion of the evening since my brother had let me know he was coming into town that past Wednesday with specific instructions about the trajectory for his visit.

"Just pick someplace fun where we can go out after... maybe either West LA or Santa Monica?" He'd texted, unaware of the challenge this presented to me, a girl who hasn't gone out to a bar on the Westside since 2010. A girl whose bar repertoire includes just two places -- Bar Covell and Beer Belly, both of which are considerably east of Highland.

The restaurant part had been easy -- a no brainer aside from the detail that it wasn't close to anything remotely acceptable as a post-dinner destination for the brother who introduced me to the words "tasting menu."

I couldn't exactly take him to Cabo Cantina.  

The wine bar seemed like a passable option, mostly because I knew it had seating and wine that didn't come from a box. I'd been a handful of times when I was working in Santa Monica, usually for a quick post-work drink, and once for a birthday party that I vaguely remembered as moderately fun (as a 25-year-old).

I hadn't remembered the girls passing off white spandex tank tops as dresses, nor the thick-headed guys still embracing the time-honored traditions of their Sig Ep fraternity. I certainly didn't remember the piercing shrill of music that would never be played on my Bon Iver Pandora station at home.


"I think I'm getting a headache," I said suddenly, desperately, hoping to call a time of death on our evening with six swift words.

"I shouldn't drink anymore anyway," My brother said immediately, pushing his barely touched glass of Cab Franc to the center of the table with the same eagerness he usually applies for the inverse -- accepting wine.

Two more glasses joined his as I stood up to find our server to secure our check.

Minutes later we were out on the street, free from Justin Bieber, white spandex "dresses" and STD-laden bar stools.

Perfectly content to be no more wild than a bowl of miso-dressed rice.

Wild Rice Salad with Miso Dressing
Adapted from Sprouted Kitchen
Serves 4

Notes: This is exactly the type of salad you want to eat after a "wild" night out -- particularly if, like me, your idea of a "wild" night is drinking half a bottle of Rosé over a three-course dinner at a Zagat-rated restaurant. I love the different textures and flavors packed in this salad -- the snap of the carrots and cucumbers, the chewy nubs of earthy rice that are more than hearty enough to stand up to the tangy, sweet dressing, and the nuanced nuttiness of the sesame seeds and edamame. The tofu makes this a meal in and off itself, though it could be easily be turned into a side dish or a visually arresting salad at a potluck.

I didn't do too much to alter the ebb and flow of this recipe other than adding Persian cucumbers (an idea I borrowed from Adam over at Amateur Gourmet), and a pinch of orange zest. I played a bit with the proportions of the ingredients as well, using a touch less tofu and more wild rice, edamame and carrots to extend the recipe into a family-sized affair. Though, despite his proclamations that we have similar tastes, I doubt my brother would go anywhere near it. Unless I snuck it into a tasting menu and lured him in with a glass of Barolo (not a suggested pairing).

1 cup wild rice, rinsed
10 ounce package of extra-firm tofu, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 teaspoons coconut oil
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup shelled edamame
1 1/2 cups carrots, sliced into 1-inch long matchsticks
2 Persian cucumbers, sliced into thin rounds and quartered
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Miso Dressing
2 tablespoons white miso
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 shallot, minced
Juice and zest of half an orange

Bring four cups of water to boil in a medium-sized pot. Add the rice, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, until water has been mostly absorbed and the black shells are starting to crack open, approximately 35-40 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Set aside.

While the rice is cooking, prepare the miso dressing. In a small bowl, whisk together the miso, maple syrup, sesame oil, rice vinegar, shallot, orange zest and juice until well-combined.

Heat large non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the coconut oil, swirling to coat the base of the pan. Add the tofu and stir-fry until browned on all sides. Lower the heat, add the soy sauce and pepper, and stir until tofu is evenly coated. Turn off the heat.

In a large bowl, toss together the cooled wild rice, edamame, carrots, cucumber, tofu, and half the cilantro and sesame seeds. Re-whisk the dressing then pour over the salad, stirring until evenly distributed. Serve immediately, garnished with the remaining cilantro and sesame seeds.

Friday, August 10, 2012

My name is Diana, and I don't hate the word 'foodie'

"I feel like I always want to go someplace foodie when we go out," She says.

She doesn't mean it in a negative way, yet I still feel my face contort, physically recoiling away from the mention of the word.


It reverberates in my head like a trombone blasted in a small enclosed room as I pause to consider her statement and the underlying question.

We're standing in the carport underneath our office building, trying to decide where to go to dinner that night. Both of us are starving -- for crisp white wine, gossip, and a dinner that won't drain our wallets or  completely kill our budget of indulgences for the week. (Even "foodies" have to be able to zip up their pants.)

The usual suspects are thrown out. Salads at Tender Greens. Half bowls of ramen (that will likely turn into full bowls when we place our orders) at Robata Jinya. The Farmers Market Vegetable Platter and a shared Burrata Pie at Pitfire.

I can see it in her eyes, and I'm sure she can see it in mine.

We want to sit in a dimly-lit room. We want to clink glasses of something with a 500% markup. We want to hear the specials. We want to order the specials.

We want to be... "foodies" together.

As we leave to drive over to the modern Mediterranean restaurant down the street to share plates of fried white trout with spring vegetables and lebne, and white corn enlivened by the heat of Moroccan spices, it strikes me that I don't much mind the label any more. That my reaction was culled from a hundred diatribes from people I admire who have deemed it a forbidden term -- a four letter word (that's actually a six letter word) never to be uttered within the microcosm of the food writing community.

There was a time when I considered the "f" word a badge of honor. Until I was told better by an older and wiser superior, I flaunted it like a new pair of Louboutins, kicking up the heels so the bright red sole was on full display for all the world to see.

"My name is Diana, and I'm a foodie," read my "About Me," section on this very blog.

I had no problem outing myself as someone who cared about the things that went on her plate. It didn't seem controversial that I wanted my pasta to be al dente and my chocolate to be Guittard. In my mind, it was just good sense, and the term assigned to that particularity seemed both appropriate and, well, kinda cute.

I was stunned (and, admittedly, a little offended) when I found out that "foodie" was a bad thing. That I wasn't supposed to go around spouting about the "amazing" seared scallops with radicchio risotto I'd made for dinner the night before or the plum from the Santa Monica's Farmers Market I planning to eat for a snack -- at least not publicly to the non-foodies normal people.

As I began to find a place in the Los Angeles dining scene, I quickly realized that the term was used as a barometer of someone's true "foodieness." Actual "foodies" wouldn't dare use the word; it was akin to admitting you liked your burgers well-done and that your favorite restaurant was Cheesecake Factory. Desperate to belong in this foie gras-lovin', hole-in-the-wall-seekin' club, I banished the word from my vocabulary, changing my "About Me" to read "My name is Diana, and I love food." I was not about to out myself as a gauche newb.

In the months and years that followed, with every taste of uni or bite of taco I ate from a cart on the street, I felt as though I was moving further away from that loathed term.

"I am not a foodie," I'd declare to my dad when he'd boast to the server at our favorite pizza place, "She has a foodie blog."

Yet, as much as I tried to convince myself that I hated being assigned that identity, I've always secretly thought all the animosity toward it was silly. If not "foodie," what then? Is "gourmand," "food enthusiast," "epicure," or "eater" any better?

Recently, Grub Street New York published a list of "Food-Writing Clichés" that need to be tossed out forever. While I agree with the majority on the list, the grating "yummy" and the flesh-curling "sammies," the predictable inclusion of "foodies" seemed to be a cliche in and of itself. While I'm not about to plaster a "foodie" tattoo on my lower lip so it's on display every time I take a sip of my non-Two Buck Chuck wine, or list it as a skill on my resume, I'm tired of pretending that it bothers me when someone identifies me as such. And I'm tired of avoiding it like it's the Cheesecake Factory of nouns.

Sometimes I like my grass-fed beef burgers cooked a little past medium. Sometimes I want my al dente pasta without uni. Sometimes I want to go to a restaurant with my co-worker and spend five minutes guessing what spices are used to season the corn because I'm actually curious, not because I'm a pretentious snob.

And sometimes I'm okay with being "Diana, a foodie."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Peach Blueberry Pie: Whole again

My TV broke on Friday morning.

I should have known it was coming. I'd had the TV in question – a Symphonic 19'' tube TV with built-in VHS – since my sophomore year of college, 10 years ago. I'd been so proud of it at the time. It felt like a big deal to spend $200 on anything, and the enormity of making that kind of financial decision without consulting my parents made me feel grown up – even if I did still send my mom all my essays to proofread before turning into my professors.

I loved the archaic TV. Loved it so much that when I graduated, I shipped it 2,000 miles across the country to meet me In Los Angeles as I embarked upon my post-collegiate life. I never intended to keep it as long as I did, never imagined that it would follow me through three different apartments, yet I never felt compelled to buy a new one. The
picture was clear, the volume worked properly, and I could still watch all the episodes of "Grey's Anatomy" that my (then) Patrick Dempsey-lovin' heart desired.

While logically I should have suspected that my TV had a shelf life, just like the open bag of Everything Pretzel Crisps in my kitchen cabinet that went stale two months ago, it came as a shock to me when it stopped working on Friday morning.

Even after the fifth time the TV snapped off mere moments after I'd turned it on, I still maintained an air of optimism (read: denial).

"It will be fine," I told myself. "It just needs to rest. When I come home tonight it will be just like new and I can watch the end of the Woman's Gymnastics All-Around while I eat chocolate covered vanilla ice cream bon bons with a cookie crust."

When I arrived home, however, it was still broken -- still defiant against my greatest efforts to save the soul of the 1990s in electronic form. The frustration slayed me. Exhausted from the work week, the silent echo of my TV-less apartment gnawed at my resolve, weakening it to that of a whimpering, whining three-year-old who wasn't getting her way.

And I was helpless to do anything about it.

It felt indicative of everything I've been feeling for the past six weeks. Helpless against the disinterest of a boy. Helpless against the ever-growing list of expenses infringing on my ability to eat at Osteria Mozza like its my personal pasta catering company. And
helpless against the ever-growing list of to-do's that keep shredding my free time into barely recognizable slivers -- ten minutes to read the new Jennifer Weiner book my friend Ali gave me, five minutes to call my mom on my walk home from work, two minutes to hit the delete button on the barely comprehensible message from the latest rocket scientist on OkCupid.

The feeling stayed with me through the night, asserting itself in the morning with the abrasive silence of my apartment, and pummeling me in the afternoon as the TV "specialist" at Best Buy tried to tick up the extras for the 32'' inch LED TV I never even wanted to begin with.

"Just a suggestion," He said, holding up a $39.99 surge protector to replace the one I currently own.

"Just a suggestion," He said, pointing to the 4-year warranty for again, $39.99.

"Just a suggestion," He said, leading me in the direction of the 47'' Plasma screens.

"No," I said firmly, desperate to get out of there so I could get home to the kitchen and feel something other than crushing frustration amidst the mounting uptick of "suggestions" and obligations and life interferences at the hands of someone else, something else.

I needed to be in control. I needed to massage cold pieces of butter into flour with my fingers. I needed to slice ripe peaches, pausing to drink in their sweet summer perfume before tossing them with blueberries and warm spices. I needed to carefully roll out a pie
crust, monitoring the dough with something akin to parental intuition – instinctively knowing when it's reached the right thickness to nestle gingerly into the pan.

I needed to feel unbroken.

And to find wholeness in the comforts of my very first pie.

Peach Blueberry Pie
Adapted from Miss Joy the Baker, the Queen of all things sweet
Makes one 9-inch pie

Notes: This pie is home. The sweetness of the in-season peaches, heightened by the rich syrup from the blueberries and fragrant spices is both nostalgic and complex. The filling is barely contained by the all-butter crust that stands up to its contents with a distinct personality of its own. It's a crust that you want to eat by itself – even when there's no oozy fruit filling to accompany it. Yes, it's flaky, but what seals the deal is the ample dusting of turbinado sugar and cinnamon on the top crust. Heated and topped off with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it's the type of pie that demands to be eaten two slices at a time.

I hardly bothered to modify the original recipe from Joy (who, if you don't know  already, is a genius in food blogga form), but I did use Minute Tapioca instead of cornstarch and a smaller proportion of flour to thicken the filling, omitted the cardamom, and added a smidgen more lemon juice. Mostly because I wanted to use the word smidgen. (Though really because I have an absurdly indecorous obsession with lemon juice.) I also made a few changes with the process and finished the crust with turbinado sugar instead of regular sugar, but all other components from the original Joy the Baker recipe remain intact (as they should be).

Either way you mix or roll it, this pie is exactly what you need to be making now. Even if you don't have a broken TV. Or TV "specialist" trying to sell you a new surge protector.

For the Crust:
2 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold, cut into cubes
5 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons ice cold water
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

For the Filling:
3 pounds ripe peaches (about 6 peaches)
1 cup fresh blueberries
1/2 to 2/3 cups granulated sugar (depending on the sweetness of your peaches)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
scant 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons Minute Tapioca
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 egg, beaten, for egg wash
2 tablespoons sugar and 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, for topping
crust before baking

Take a deep breath, and make the crust.

Keep in mind: The key to flaky crust is keeping the butter as cold as humanely possible. Cut cold butter into cubes then stick back in the refrigerator or freezer while preparing other ingredients for the crust. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. Measure out the water into a small bowl and whisk together with the apple cider vinegar. Place in the refrigerator to keep cold. (Are you sensing a theme here?) Using your fingers, quickly massage the cold cubes of butter into the flour mixture until the dough is somewhat shaggy and the butter pieces are no larger than the size of a pie. Make a well in the middle of the batter and dump in the cold water/vinegar. Stir together with a fork until all the floury bits are moistened and the dough is starting to come “loosely” together.

Dump out the dough on a floured surface or cutting board and divide in half. Gently knead into two flat disks. Don’t worry about visible butter pieces – that’s exactly what will help ensure a flaky crust!

Wrap the discs in saran wrap or press 'n seal wrap (I prefer the latter) and refrigerate for at least an hour. If short for time, pop in the freezer for 20-30 minutes and it should do the trick nicely also. The point is to re-chill the butter so it's as cold as possible when it goes into the oven.

While the crust is chilling, prepare the filling. Quarter peaches (with skins still intact!) into quarter-inch thick slices. Toss with blueberries. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, ground ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Sprinkle over the peaches and blueberries and gently stir until just integrated to avoid bruising the fruit. Combine Tapioca with the lemon juice and the juices that are starting to form at the bottom of the bowl of fruit. This will begin the dissolving process and start to thicken up at least some of the juices prior to baking. Add to the fruit bowl, again, stirring gently until just combined. Place in the fridge to chill.

Crack the egg into a small bowl and whisk to form an egg wash. In another small bowl, use a fork to combine the cinnamon with the turbinado sugar. Set aside while rolling out the dough.

Remove one of the dough discs (don’t you just love alliteration?) from the wrap and roll out into a 13-inch round, pausing to re-flour the rolling pin to keep the dough from sticking. You’ll want to roll a few strokes in one direction and then rotate around the pie to ensure an even thickness and somewhat circular shape. It won’t be perfect, but that’s okay since you’ll have extra dough to snip off.  Fold the dough in half to transfer to the pie pan, and then gently unfold and nestle into the pan. Place in the refrigerator while you roll out the top crust.

Follow the same instructions to roll out the top crust to create an identical 13-inch round circle. Remove the bottom crust from the refrigerator and gently spoon the filling into pan. Fold the top crust in half and use kitchen shears or a knife to cut four, one-inch diagonal slits approximately one-inch apart in the center so the steam can escape while the pie bakes. Cut three, smaller, half-inch diagonal slits between those slits. This will create an almost “lattice-like” effect without all the effort of cutting the top crust into strips.

Transfer the folded crust to the pie tin, unfolding to cover the filling. Use the kitchen sheers or knife to trim the edges of the crust so there’s just about 1-inch (or ¾ inch if you prefer less crust) overhang. Use your fingers to press together the top and bottom crusts, pinching to crimp the edges. With a pastry brush, lightly coat the top crust and pinched edge with the egg wash and then generously sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar mixture.

Place a cookie sheet on the bottom rack of the preheated oven to capture the escaping juices, and bake pie at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, then lower heat to 375 for the remaining 45 to 55 minutes. The pie is done when it’s golden brown on top. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack for at least 2 hours before serving so the juices have time to solidify a bit. Slice and serve topped with vanilla ice cream. Store in the fridge for up to 3 to 4 days.