Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sweet Butternut Squash Coconut Jam: The centerpiece

For someone who works (and plays) in the food industry, I am disconcertingly delinquent when it comes to planning for Thanksgiving. It's not that I forget about the holiday's existence, and, in fact,  spend all month talking about it as a publicist - pitching recipes and menus and wine pairings until every writer in the greater LA area is ready to add me to their blocked senders' lists.

As saturated as my daily world is with all those Thanksgiving-related details (to brine or not to brine, the proper digestif to pair with pumpkin pie, and the tired question of whether to prepare stuffing inside or outside of the turkey), I somehow always fail to think about what I'm going to do myself. It doesn't hit me until the day before, as I'm sending that final work email before heading out the door, that, oh right, Thanksgiving is tomorrow.

It's only then that I start to feel that nudge of compulsion to do something above and beyond what my family already has slated out for the holiday. You know, the standard stuffing-filled barbecued turkey, mashed potatoes with my dad's giblet-heavy gravy, and, yes, even that requisite cranberry jelly served unceremoniously on a plate, still perfectly molded in the shape of a can.

I'll half-heartedly start poking around the fall recipes I've bookmarked for inspiration, pausing to consider a remix on the pumpkin pie I'm not particularly fond of to begin with, the latest variation on Brussels sprouts, or a healthier take on a Thanksgiving side that I may be able to sneak onto the table without too much protest from the potato-pushers in the family. Because, for me, Thanksgiving has become less about what's on the plate, and more about the time spent with the people who know me outside this weird food-focused microcosm where I both work and play. The people who, while often equally passionate about eating well, still think nothing wrong with cranberry jelly plopped onto the table in the shape of a can.

So, today, tonight, I head into another Thanksgiving armed not with a pumpkin pie bread pudding with bourbon-pecan hard sauce; nor a stuffing comprised of homemade cornbread, sausage and caramelized onions; but with a recipe for sweet butternut squash coconut jam that I don't even plan to serve on the holiday itself.

Instead, it will be slathered on bread with a smear of goat cheese at various points over the weekend, tucked into oatmeal with pomegranate arils and toasted walnuts, or perhaps eaten directly from the jar with a spoon. It will stand on its own -- outside of the spectacle of turkey and excessive starches and the vegetables I plan to roast into submission so I have one thing I can eat without hating myself.

And we'll all be thankful for it. Because this jam is a centerpiece all to itself, a sticky mass of fall that deserves to be shared with the people who make Thanksgiving a reason to celebrate in the first place. Even when, and especially because, they force-feed you cranberry jelly from a can.

Sweet Butternut Squash Coconut Jam
Lightly Adapted from The Kitchn
Makes 2 cups

Notes: I followed this recipe mostly to the "T" as they say, though I did cut it in half and use regular vanilla as opposed to a vanilla bean. I also used a whole cinnamon stick like the original recipe for double the amount, because I deemed it unnecessary to attempt to snap a cinnamon stick in half. Particularly since I tend to use an aggressive hand with my cinnamon shaker in general. Do with it what you will, but promise me you'll try this spun into a bowl of oatmeal laced with pomegranates and walnuts as pictured below. Life-changing stuff, I tell you.

1 lb butternut squash, grated
1 cup milk
1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
5 whole cloves
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup finely shredded, unsweetened coconut

In a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized pot, combine the grated squash, milk, sugars, cinnamon stick, and cloves. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently so the milk doesn't scorch. As the squash begins to soften, use the spoon to squash it down a bit. (Forgive me for the terrible pun - it's a disease.) But keep on stirring and mashing, for a good 15-20 minutes or so until it's starting to take on a baby-food like consistency.

Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring frequently as the milk reduces, until the mixture takes on a jam-like quality, approximately 25-35 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and cloves, then stir in the vanilla, followed by the coconut. Remove from the heat and let cool before serving.

Store in the refrigerator, but I'd advise to eat it up within a week or two. Mostly because I'm paranoid about these types of things, but also because this is the kind of jam that should be enjoyed daily on everything and anything that could possibly be served with jam.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sound Bites

Because there's not always time for a full meal...

1. The recipe I'm dying to make for someone to make for me - Pumpkin Pie Bread Pudding with Bourbon-Pecan Hard Sauce via Food & Wine.

2. My new obsession - Saako Scarf-Lace. As soon as it's cold enough to wear this without looking like a dork-face, my neck will never see the light of day again. Because not only is this scarf super cool-looking, when I wear it I get to tell people it was handmade by Ana Isabel in Barcelona. Which is, you know, way better than saying your scarf was handmade by a machine in China.

3. My new sippable obsession - Lupicia's Caramel & Rum Rooibos Tea. So it's not actually new to me, but it may be new to you. It doesn't taste particularly rummy, but enough like caramel that you might be able to skip dessert if you are one of those people who does that.

4. Where I've been eating - Trois Mec. You know when you're having one of those weeks where mercury is in retrograde and even though you're a sensible person and don't believe in that, your kitchen sink clogs, your hairdryer breaks and you can't find the $500 check that you're sure you stored in a safe place because… you're a sensible person. And then you get an invite to attend a special book dinner at one of the most exciting new restaurants in not just LA, but the country. You say "yes" without hesitation because it's Daniel Patterson and Ludo Lefebvre, and suddenly find yourself walking into a former pizzeria with an open kitchen of chefs beckoning you inside with a chorus of "Bonjours!" Before you know what's happening, you're sipping Blanc de Blanc and munching on Patterson's brown rice crackers and avocado like this is what you always do on Wednesday nights. After a circus of dishes, Lefebvre's famed potato pulp is placed before you - a snow-like mound of potato tendrils, nourished by an indecent amount of brown butter, flecks of bonito flakes, onion soubise, and salers cheese. And it no longer matters that your kitchen sink is clogged and your hairdryer is broken and you may never see that $500 again. Because you're eating potato pulp in a former pizzeria in a strip mall, and life is pretty darn good.

5. What I'm reading - Life & Thyme. Just when you think there can't possibly be room for another food blog in Los Angeles, you stumble upon a site that's doing things so differently that you remember why you read food blogs in the first place. Photos that put your Instagram feed to shame, words that paint a picture as vivid as those images, and stories that capture exactly why Los Angeles is such an exciting place to be eating and drinking right now. It's about thyme.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Roasted Root Vegetables with Quinoa: Faking fall

The weather in LA has been schizophrenic this fall. Right when it seems like we've made it, that I can actually start using the boots that have been collecting dust in the closet since last year, we get slapped with an 80 degree day that demands to be enjoyed in sandals.

It shouldn't surprise me so - I've lived nearly my entire life in Southern California except for the four years I spent shivering in Chicago during college, and yet somehow every November I seem to forget that we don't actually get a fall. At least not a discernible fall in the way that one experiences in Chicago when the change in season comes dramatically and decisively before September has even had time to make its official exit. The air chills and crisps in a way that is barely possible in Los Angeles even on its coldest days.

While I, like most Angelenos, inevitably bemoan the loss of summer and squawk about how cold it is the second the temperature dips below 65, I miss that feeling. The stampede of cold air nearly bursting my lungs, reddening my cheeks and requiring an aggressively wrapped scarf wound round my neck like ivy.

The contrast in autumnal experiences has been even more perceptible to me this year for some reason. Likely because I've been searching for it - the crunchy fallen leaves that I can squash underneath my booted feet, the comforting shield of a wool sweater, and the end of tomato season once and for all.

So as the 80 degree temperatures rage on outside my apartment window, I've been faking fall in the only way I really know how - by drinking tea from a seasonally inappropriate mug and cranking up my oven to a temperature that is regretfully high for a one bedroom abode. Even with sweat beading at my temples, I press on, roasting roots until they shrivel and caramelize into unrecognizable forms of crisp-edged vegetable candy. I toss them with a bracing aged balsamic vinegar and spoon their collapsing corpses over a bowl of steaming quinoa. And then, finally, thankfully, I find it.

Fall in food form.

At least until I can squawk about it being 64 degrees out.

Roasted Root Vegetables with Quinoa
Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side

Notes: This recipe can be as simple as just the vegetables themselves, served as an accompaniment to roast chicken (fall's other favorite food), or as complex as you see here. I often find myself subtracting the feta and pistachios to keep it a touch lighter, but the mint has become a fairly essential addition - the punctuation mark, if you will. Enjoy it with a red wine that will stand up to the aggressive bite of the vinegar, and then cozy up on the couch with a cup of tea in a seasonally inappropriate mug.

1-2 beets (depending on size), peeled and chopped into 3/4-inch chunks
3 carrots, scrubbed, but not peeled, and sliced into 1/2-inch thick slivers
8 Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed, and sliced into halves (omitted in the version you see pictured)
2 shallots, sliced into rings
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chickpeas
1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed well
Handful fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons pistachios
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large cast iron skillet, toss beets, carrots, Brussels sprouts, and shallots with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast, stirring occasionally to ensure even browning/caramelizing, for 35-40 minutes or until vegetables are deeply colored and crispy around the edges. Five minutes before removing from the oven, stir in the chickpeas to heat through. Remove from the oven and pour the balsamic vinegar over the hot vegetables, stirring to release any caramelized bits of vegetable stuck to the bottom of the pan.

While the vegetables are roasting, prepare the quinoa. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat, then add the rinsed quinoa kernels to the dry pan. Toast, shaking the pan frequently so the kernels don't burn, until lightly browned on all sides. (Approximately 5-7 minutes.)  Turn off the heat.  Bring a cup of salted water to a boil, then add the toasted quinoa. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes or until the water is absorbed.  Fluff with a fork and set aside.

To serve, spoon quinoa into bowls and scatter the vegetable-mix over the top.  Sprinkle with the fresh mint, pistachios and feta. Toss together into hot mess of fall flavors.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sound Bites

Because there's not always time for a full meal...

1. The recipe I'm dying to makeSweet Butternut Squash and Coconut Jam via TheKitchn. Is this the reason toast was invented?  I don't know, but I will endeavor to find out. Even if I do have to eat an entire loaf of bread to do so. (Life is hard, guys.)

2. My new favorite nonessential essentialLékué Decomax Decorating Pen – This silicon bowl-bag hybrid frosting kit is pretty much the best thing that was ever invented for people who break out in hives every time they see a frosting bag, because…frustrated noises. I found mine at Sur La Table for $25, and it's basically the reason my Guinness Stout Ginger Cupcakes look far cuter than any cupcake that has ever emerged from my kitchen before. Frosting bowl-bags = winning. 

3. My new edible obsessionPerugina's Baci Bar – a thick slab of dark chocolate filled with chopped hazelnuts and, according to the website, "luscious chocolate."  Apparently this whole "Baci flavor" is "world famous" and only recently available in bar form, so obviously I've been living under a rock and, yes, I did have the Motorola Razr until 2010. A word of warning – eating six squares in a single sitting is maybe too much. As in, you might get a stomachache and need to drink three cups of tea and then still decide it's worth it, because it's luscious chocolate, yo, and you have to make up for all the time you were eating non-world famous candy.

4. Where I've been eating Cook's County.  I've always wanted to have a neighborhood spot where I could go and get those nods of recognition from the staff like I'm "one of them," even if those nods are all in my head. While I've now reached a point where I've been to this literal farm-to-table restaurant enough times to warrant a hug from a server on my last visit (it helps when you begin the relationship by ordering the entire dessert menu), what keeps me coming back is the food. Chef Daniel Mattern and Pastry Chef Roxana Jullapat take seasonality seriously, changing the menu nearly daily to reflect their latest bounty from the farmers market whether it be persimmons and squash in the fall, or ramps and peas in the spring. My current obsession is the BLT with a fried egg and avocado at brunch (pictured above), but regardless of the meal or occasion, I don't dare leave without ordering at least one of Jullapat's pastries or desserts.

5. What I've been readingHumans of New York. I discovered this blog/Facebook page during my post-NYC vacation depression and have become completely hooked. It's like an edgy, real-to-life version of all those Hallmark commercials that make you (okay, me) cry, captured through arresting photos that reflect the diversity and beauty of the humans that make up New York City. Grab a box of Kleenex before looking at this one. (P.S. The photographer/creator Brandon Stanton just published a book version too!)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Black Truffle Risotto: The ultimate souvenir

The second time I met my future sister-in-law, I made her go car shopping with me.

She was in town visiting from Phoenix with my brother, and what was supposed to be a special occasion for family-bonding and copious wine-drinking, quickly turned into a weekend of test drives and me having a nervous breakdown over whether I should get a Toyota Corolla, a Hyundai Elantra or nothing at all.

While everyone in my family (my mother included) quickly tired of my indecisiveness, she remained firmly on my side, never once arching an eyebrow even when I hijacked a trip to the mall so we could check out one last car dealership before dinner.

There was a moment in the midst of that final test drive when I looked in the rear view mirror at her in the back seat and realized that she wasn't just some girl my brother was dating. Nor was she someone I could imagine floating in and out of our lives at the slightest provocation, breeze or a potential sister-in-law's nervous breakdown.

She was family. 

Either that or someone who really really likes shopping for cars.

Recently, she, my brother, and my parents took a trip to Italy together. I had originally hoped to join them for what I knew would be an eating and drinking extravaganza, but instead opted for an eating and drinking extravaganza in New York with my girl friends.

Even though I was happy with my decision (and grateful that I wouldn't have to share a hotel room with my parents), it was difficult for me to see the pictures on Facebook and Instagram of them truffle-hunting in Alba, sipping wine at the La Spinetta vineyards in Piedmont and touring the Colosseum. I wanted to be there with them gorging on Neapolitan pizza, al dente pasta and, in the words of my mother, "too many wine tastings."

So when my brother sent me a text message revealing that he'd smuggled me back a black truffle, I was thrilled that they'd thought of me in the midst of all their Barbera-slurping. Particularly since it meant I would get to enjoy a small taste of Italy in my shoebox West Hollywood apartment.

Yet, as fun as it was to shower a bowl of risotto with an indecent amount of black truffle shavings, it didn't compare to the other souvenir he brought back from Italy for me.

A future sister-in-law.

Someone who I know will always be on my side. Or, at the very least, always go car shopping with me.

[Congratulations, Richard and Taylor!]

Black Truffle Risotto
Serves 2

Notes: This is a simple risotto - the barest bones of risottos, really, but also the perfect canvas for an ingredient like fresh truffles. The key here is patience, an attentive eye, and, the best ingredients you can find. It's a labor of love, but worth every flick of the wrist. This is comfort food at its finest and most luxurious.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, minced
2/3 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine (a crisp Sauvignon Blanc is preferred)
4 cups of chicken stock (or 4 cups water combined with 1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon chicken base)
1/3 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmigiano Reggiano)
An indecent amount of black truffle shavings

In a large saucepan, combine white wine and chicken stock.  Bring to a slow boil, then reduce heat and cover to keep warm. (You may not need all of it, but I prefer to error on the side of generosity.)

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in deep non-stick pan, preferably cast iron as it will cook the rice more evenly.  Once hot, add the shallots, reduce heat to medium and sauté for 3-4 minutes. Add the rice kernels (no need to rinse first), and sauté with the onion for a couple minutes.  Lower the heat, add a spoonful of the wine/broth mixture to deglaze the pan, and then add an additional 1/2 cup of the liquid.  Simmer, uncovered, until the broth is absorbed, and then add another 1/2 cup, stirring frequently to ensure even cooking.

Continue process until rice is creamy and tender, but still has a slight chew left to it, as it will continue to cook after you serve it. Moving quickly, stir in the freshly grated pecorino, then plate immediately, letting it bleed out across the plate (or, if using, base of a flat bowl). Sprinkle with black truffle shavings. Buon appetito!