Friday, August 29, 2008

The Jersey Shore: Mandolettes and Mandelbrot

Like many people, we're taking an end of summer trip. This time of year makes us appreciate those things that fill us with joy. Spending time with friends and family, having leisurely meals, taking long walks on the beach, and, special to this summer, watching the Olympics and following the political campaigns.

More than usual, the fall will bring big changes to our household because our son, Michael, is preparing to leave for his freshman year at college. So it was important to find time to take a trip to New Jersey to visit with Michelle's parents.

With few exceptions, Michelle's extended family has stayed on the East Coast. A few years ago they had a family reunion at a nearby resort and 75 aunts, uncles, and cousins came for the weekend. Sunday at Helen and Warren's means brunch for 20, setting up a table in the living room, bringing out the folding chairs, and sharing platters of bagels, lox, coffee cake, cold cuts, cheese, egg salad, tuna salad, fresh fruit, and lots of Helen's special iced coffee.

This trip Helen and Warren taught Michael how to play bridge because bridge is one of the intramural activities at UC Davis and Michelle's parents are bridge mavens. We ate lobsters, a rare treat, because StopRite, the local mega-supermarket had them on sale for $5.99/pound. And Helen made us mandolettes and mandelbrot from a family recipe.

During the year we're the happy recipients of Helen's cookies, but this time we enjoyed being in the kitchen while she made them for us. Luckily there were enough left over so we could take some with us, although not many survived the plane trip home. They are so delicious.


Yield: about 2 dozen
Time: 30 minutes


2 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup flour
Grated rind of 1/2 lemon
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots or dates
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chocolate chips


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour a cookie sheet. Mix the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until thick. Using a spoon mix in the flour, lemon rind, and cinnamon, then add in the dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate chips. Mix well.

Put the batter on the cookie sheet, making 2 strips 2" wide.

Bake 16-18 minutes or until lightly browned. Slice into 1/2" cookies while still warm. Transfer to a rack and let cool. Store the cookies in an air-tight container and refrigerate. They can be frozen.


Yield: about 2 dozen
Time: 30 minutes


3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup canola oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 pound walnuts (roughly chopped)
3 cups flour


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Beat together the eggs, sugar, oil, salt, and vanilla until the mixture is smooth and custard colored. Add the baking powder and flour and mix well, then fold in the chopped walnuts. Form the dough into three logs about 2" wide and a foot long. Place them on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake 18-20 minutes or until lightly browned. While still warm, slice into 1/2" wide cookies. Place the individual cookies back on the cookie sheet and return to the oven for another 5 minutes and brown on both sides. Remove and let cool on a wire rack.

Keep the mandelbrot in an air-tight container. They can be frozen.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

An Easy Summer Meal of Heirloom Tomatoes and Sautéed Chicken Breasts

A good friend had a problem: his wife's birthday was a week away and he had to organize a dinner for 25. Clay likes hosting Lesli's birthday party but doesn't enjoy the pressure of putting together the meal. In the past he had side-stepped the stress by ordering out.

For many years, the dinner party was catered by Versailles a popular Cuban restaurant. This year he decided a pot luck dinner would make the meal more personal. Truth is Clay's talents lie in painting and photography and while he enjoys eating, he's happy to leave the cooking to others. But he had committed to preparing the main course and a side dish and even that felt burdensome. We discussed all this at our weekly Sunday brunch. I figured it was the manly thing to do to help him plan, shop, and prepare the dinner.

The central question was obvious: what to make for the main course that would feed 25 and wouldn't require a huge amount of time in the kitchen? In the winter, the obvious answer would be a roast or a comfort dish like chicken and dumplings. Since Lesli's birthday falls in the middle of summer when the air is warm and eating outdoors is the order of the day, something lighter was required.

Given that Lesli and my wife, Michelle, prefer simply prepared meals, we settled on easy-to-make grilled chicken breasts and Italian sweet sausages. For a side dish we talked about sautéed spinach, green beans with garlic and mushrooms, or grilled artichokes, any of which would go well with the grilled meats. In deference to eating locally, we made a plan to shop at the farmers' market the day of the party and decide what to make while we were at the market.

Saturday morning we met early at the Santa Monica farmers' market. Walking past the farmers' stalls we saw vegetables we hadn't thought about: summer squash and Japanese eggplants for grilling, plump carrots for a Moroccan flavored salad, and baby bok choy that we could stir fry with ginger, garlic and soy sauce.

Finally we settled on the obvious summer choice: a salad of heirloom tomatoes in a simple vinaigrette. Right now the profusion of tomatoes in the market is nothing short of phenomenal: Brandywines (red, yellow, black), Cherokee Purples, Green Zebras, even a sweet cherry tomato called Snow White.

We also saw fresh Italian parsley, shallots, ginger, and garlic. Those flavors could bring a helpful lift to the chicken breasts. We decided on a simple butter sauce and a crispy topping of bacon, shallots, garlic, ginger, and Italian parsley leaves.

The nice part about pot luck meals is you discover things you didn't know about your friends. Talking with Melissa about what she was going to bring, I learned that she and her husband had just gotten back from a trip to Napa. She happily applied her recent experience and brought a terrific platter of cheeses (each one with its own flag-label) accompanied by a fig spread, grapes, strawberries, and nuts.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 10 minutes


2 pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes (washed, stems removed)
1/2 basket ripe heirloom cherry tomatoes (washed, stems removed, halved)
1 ripe avocado (washed, peeled, pit removed, roughly chopped)
1/2 cup olives (cracked green or black, pitted, roughly chopped)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and pepper


On a very low flame heat the vinegar in a small saucepan until reduced to 1 tablespoon.

Cut the large tomatoes into quarters or chunks or slices--whatever you prefer--gently toss them with the cherry tomatoes, avocado, olives, olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar. Season to taste with sea salt and pepper.


Add cilantro or Italian parsley leaves, roughly chopped.

Add red onion or scallions, peeled, finely chopped.

Chicken Breasts with Butter Sauce and a Crispy Topping

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 1 hour


4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (washed, pat dried)
4 slices bacon (finely chopped)
4 shallots (peeled, finely julienned)
2" piece of fresh ginger (peeled, finely julienned)
4 garlic cloves (peeled, finely julienned)
1/2 cup Italian parsley (washed, dried, leaves only)
1/4 cup sweet butter
1/2 cup chicken stock
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
6 cups safflower oil


Make the crispy part first. Heat the oil in a deep pan like a wok so that when the ingredients are added and the oil foams up, the pan is deep enough that the oil won't flow onto the stove. You can tell this was a lesson I learned the hard way. Test the oil by dropping in a parsley leaf. If it crisps in 5-6 seconds, the oil's hot enough. Cook the bacon, ginger, garlic, parsley, and shallots separately. Have a slotted spoon or a fine-mesh strainer ready because they will cook in a few seconds. Remove each and let drain on a paper towel.

Drizzle olive oil onto a plate, then season with sea salt and pepper. Dredge each chicken breast half through the seasoned oil. Either grill the breasts on a barbecue or sauté in a medium-hot pan until browned on each side. Put the breasts on a plate and cover lightly with a piece of aluminum foil. Heat butter and chicken stock in a sauté pan and reduce until thickened.

Arrange the breasts on a platter, drizzle with the butter sauce, and top with the crispy bits.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Home Alone...Again: A Lime-Mint Cooler, Grilled Corn Salsa, and Carne Asada

A couple of days ago, Michael was at a Dodger's Game, Frank was in San Francisco, and Michelle was at Sundance so I was home alone. The last time I was left to my own devices, it took me a while to figure out what to make for dinner. This time I knew exactly what I wanted.

Carne asada.

When I'm cooking for myself I want something that's quick and easy. Carne asada was perfect because it only took a few minutes on the grill. Adding a corn salsa and a lime-mint cooler and I was completely happy.

For the recipes I expanded them to serve four (except for the cooler which should be made one at a time).

Lime-Mint Cooler

I wanted to find a use for a white rum from Guatemala called "Quezalteca - Especial". What I came up with is a close cousin to a Mojito.

Yield: 1 serving
Time: 5 minutes


1 lime or 1 tablespoon of fresh lime juice
10 mint leaves (washed, crushed)
1 1/2 tablespoons powdered sugar
3 tablespoons white rum


Mix together the lime juice, mint leaves, powdered sugar and white rum, add 4 ice cubes and stir well. Let the ice cubes melt for a couple of minutes. Stir again. Taste and add more powdered sugar as needed.

Roasted Corn Salsa

Using several different kinds of cherry tomatoes gives the salsa a colorful presentation.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes


1 ear of corn (husks and silks removed)
1 basket cherry tomatoes (washed, stems removed, quartered)
1 garlic clove (peeled, finely chopped) optional
2 tablespoons red onions (finely chopped)
1 cup cilantro or Italian parsley (washed, stems removed, finely chopped)
1 small hot pepper (washed, stem and seeds removed, finely chopped) optional
1 teaspoon lemon juice (optional)
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt and pepper


Drizzle olive oil over the ear of corn and grill on all sides until lightly charred, remove, let cool and cut off all the kernels. Mix the corn with the tomatoes, onions, and cilantro and season with the hot pepper (optional), lemon juice (optional) , olive oil, sea salt and pepper.

For an Italian style salsa substitute the parsley for the cilantro, black pepper for the hot pepper, and don't use the lemon juice.

Carne Asada

Traditionally carne asada is served with a corn or flour tortilla. Sometimes I substitute lavash for the tortilla because the lavash is flakier and sweeter.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 20 minutes


1 pound skirt or flank steak (washed, pat dry)
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
Hot sauce (optional)
4 large tortillas or lavash
4 romaine leaves (washed, shredded)
1 avocado (washed, pitted, peeled, roughly chopped)
2 scallions or 1 small onion (washed, peeled, finely chopped)
2 cups grated cheddar


Sprinkle olive oil, sea salt, pepper, and hot sauce (optional) on a plate. Dredge the pieces of steak through the seasoned oil until well coated and grill on a hot barbecue 5-8 minutes on each side until slightly charred.

Remove from the grill, put on a plate, cover with tin foil, let rest for 5 minutes. Lightly grill tortillas or lavash on the grill. Chop the meat into bite-sized pieces, spread on the tortillas or lavash. Sprinkle on the lettuce, onions, and cheese. Season to taste with sea salt and hot sauce. Top with salsa.