Monday, August 31, 2009

A Light and Cool Summer Dessert: Raspberry Custard

My favorite cold weather desserts need to be sweet and full of flavor. When it's cold and rainy outside, nothing is better than a slice of flourless chocolate cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a bowl of hot apple cobbler and a spoonful of heavy cream. Rich and sweet or hot and sweet, yumm.

In summer, heaviness is out of place. My preferred dessert is beautifully ripe fruit from our local farmers' market: a bowl of ripe berries, a slice of ice cold watermelon or cantaloupe, a ripe pluot, peach, or nectarine.

When I want a more elaborate dessert, I supplement fresh fruit with custard.

Custard is easy to make, requiring only grade-school math: 2 (eggs) + 1 (cup cream) + 1/2 (cup sugar). Poured in a buttered pan, baked in a water bath. In and out of a 350 degree oven in an hour. Simple, easy, and delicious.

Then I had a thought.

Why not separate the eggs and get a souffle-effect by beating the whites? With a bit of experimentation, I discovered the souffle needed more support, so I adjusted the proportions by adding a third egg. To lighten the flavor and lower the calories, instead of using all cream, I split the difference with a 50-50 mixture of cream and plain yogurt. If you can find Greek yogurt, all the better, for its sour-edge.

Just for the record, I tried using all yogurt and it wasn't creamy enough for my taste.

Cream and Yogurt Custard with Fresh Raspberries

Yield: 4-6 servings

Time: 15 minutes to prepare, 75 minutes to bake


3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup plain yogurt, preferably Greek
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel, finely chopped
1 basket raspberries, washed, dried
1 teaspoon sweet butter, melted


With the melted butter, paint an 8" or 9" ovenproof bowl to prevent sticking. Put the whites into a mixer with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Beat until the whites peak, 3-5 minutes. Set aside.

Beat together the yolks and the remaining sugar until well-blended. Add the vanilla, yogurt, cream, and lemon peel. Mix well. Carefully fold in the whites, then the fresh raspberries.

Pour into the ovenproof bowl, place into a water bath with 2" of water, put in a preheated 350 degree oven.

After 30 minutes, rotate the bowl for even cooking and place an aluminum foil tent over the top to prevent burning. Be sure that the "tent" peaks above the surface of the bowl, otherwise as the souffle top rises, it will stick to the foil.

You'll know the custard is set when rotating the bowl, the custard moves only a little bit. Remove from the oven and let cool.

For lunch, serve cold from the refrigerator. For dinner, it is better at room temperature. Dust with powdered sugar just before serving.


Instead of raspberries, use any berry.

Top with whipped cream instead of powdered sugar.

Top with a caramelized nut: chopped walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts

Friday, August 28, 2009

Garlic Toasts and Farmers' Market Tomatoes

In southern California the end of summer means heat waves, brush fires, traffic jams near the beaches, and a bounty of produce in the farmers' markets. At the Santa Monica Farmers' Market and our neighborhood Pacific Palisades Farmers' Market, tomatoes fill the stalls. All kinds of tomatoes: conventional, heirloom, and cherry tomatoes.

Taking advantage of all those tomatoes is imperative.

I especially enjoy the sweetness of cherry tomatoes. I've skewered them. Roasted and turned them into pasta sauce. Used them in salads. Served them with fresh mozzarella. Recently I discovered a new combination that is perfect for a summer meal.

With a nod to bruschetta, the vegetable and cheese topping contrasts with the garlic toasts, but the bread should be cut thin, about 1/4" thick, the easier to break apart with a knife and fork.

Assemble the salad at the last minute so the toasts stay crunchy.

Garlic Toasts Topped with Farmers' Market Fresh Vegetables

Yield 4 servings

Time 30 minutes


8 slices Italian bread, thin sliced, 1/4" thick
4 garlic cloves, skins removed, finely chopped
1 basket cherry tomatoes, stems removed, washed, quartered
1/4 cup olives cracked green or black, pitted, finely chopped
1 bunch Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, finely chopped
1 tablespoon red onion, finely chopped
1 cup fresh mozzarella, dried, roughly chopped
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, roughly chopped
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
Sea salt and pepper


In a small sauce pan, reduce the balsamic vinegar by half over a low flame, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large frying pan, add the chopped garlic and the thin slices of Italian bread. Saute until lightly browned on both sides. Add olive oil as needed but only enough so the slices brown evenly.

Place the sauteed bread on the bottom of a large bowl, add the Italian parsley, avocado, red onion, mozzarella, quartered cherry tomatoes, and slivered olives.

Drizzle with olive oil and the reduced balsamic vinegar. Season with sea salt and pepper. Serve immediately.


Add 1 ear corn, boiled or grilled, kernels removed

Add 5 grilled shrimp, roughly chopped

Add 1 cup grilled chicken breast, roughly chopped

Add 4 anchovies, finely chopped

Add 1 hard boiled egg, finely chopped

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Drinks of Summer: Martinis and Caipirinhas

Years ago I was working on a difficult job. The days were long. The heat oppressive. Many of my coworkers were given to fits of irrationality and unpleasantness. But finally, as with all things, the job was ending. To celebrate our release from pain, a final party was arranged before we returned to our lives and normalcy.

I remember being led downstairs to a grotto and in the dimness there was an apparition I've never forgotten.

A lone waiter, moving through the crowd--a Moses dividing the Red Sea--his elbow cocked, a tray balanced on one hand and on that tray were half a dozen shimmering glasses of cold, liquid pinkness. Somehow a light followed those glasses through the darkness as though a stagehand with a follow-spot had found the movie star we all dream about.

When I am hot, tired, and weary, the vision of those cosmopolitans held high above the crowd comes back to me and I am revived.

An ice-cold cosmopolitan brings a smile to my face, but from my travels I can offer up 3 more companions to lower the temperature on a hot summer night.

Beach Martini

On a trip to Houston and a stay at the Hotel Icon, Roberto Sanchez, one of the barmen in the Voice Lounge, improvised a cocktail that remains a favorite for its lightness and refreshing flavors.

Yield 1 serving

Time 5 minutes


1 1/2 ounces Finlandia vodka
3/4 ounce Patron Citron
1/2 ounce DeKuyper Watermelon Pucker
Splash of freshly squeezed orange juice


Combine the ingredients with crushed ice. Shake. Strain and pour into a martini glass.

Kiwi-Pomegranate Caipirinha

The national drink of Brazil, the caipirinha, has 4 ingredients: cachaça, sugar, limes, and ice. Simple, delicious, and strong. Cachaça is harsher than rum but more flavorful than vodka.

Off and on for three years our older son, Franklin, lived in Brazil. We visited him in wonderfully complex Rio where he introduced us to the pleasures of sitting on the Leblon beach, enjoying the incredible view and feasting on "appetizers" sold by vendors who walk up and down the beach.

Because Brazil has such a bounty of tropical fruits, it was only a matter of time before the caipirinha enjoyed the addition of other flavors. Franklin had learned to make variations. Going to a nearby farmers' market, we picked out different fruit to add to the basic ingredients.

Back at his apartment we spent the afternoon working our way through many combinations. What we liked best was adding kiwi fruit and pomegranate seeds, then we experimented with the proportions.

When it was time to leave Rio, we packed our suitcase with as many bottles of cachaça as we could legally bring home.

Yield 1 serving

Time 5 minutes


2 ounces cachaça
1 tablespoon superfine sugar
1/2 lime, cut into 8 pieces, mashed in a mortar and pestle
1/2 kiwi, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon pomegranate seeds
Ice, cubed or crushed

Pour the cachaça in a 12 ounce glass, add the sugar and stir well. Add the lime, kiwi, and pomegranate seeds. Fill the glass with ice and stir well.

Serve with a spoon so you can eat the kiwi and pomegranate seeds while you sip your caipirinha.

A True Pomegranate Martini

On a recent trip to Sonoma, visiting the amazing Sonoma Market, we picked up a bottle of Sonoma Syrup Co's Pomegranate Grenadine Simple Syrup. If you can find a bottle, which takes some doing, you'll read the label and find that this is one of the few (maybe the only) pomegranate syrups that is made exclusively with pomegranate juice and sugar, and, oh yeah, some water. Really delicious.

If you're lucky enough to find a source for Tanqueray Vodka--yes, Vodka--buy several bottles. Where we live only the upscale market, Gelson's, carries it and it is something special.

Yield 1 serving

Time 1 minute


5 ounces vodka, preferably Tanqueray
1/2 ounce Pomegranate Grenadine, preferably made by Sonoma Syrup Company


Keep the vodka in the freezer. Combine the vodka and grenadine in a martini glass and stir well.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Now & Later Meals: Grilled Corn Has a Second Act as a Salad

Besides outdoor grilling, days at the beach, fried chicken, ripe tomatoes, and ice cold watermelon, corn on the cob is one of the great markers of summer.

When I was growing up, my mom loved to search out road side stands that sold fresh corn. She'd buy a grocery bag full and we'd feast on boiled corn with slabs of melting butter, seasoned liberally with salt and pepper.

I still enjoy corn that way, but now more often than not our corn on the cob comes to the table grilled not boiled.

Shucked and drizzled with olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper, then turned on a grill until lightly browned, the naturally sweet kernels are sweetened even more by caramelization. Yumm.

For a snack, nothing is better than an ear of corn pulled from the refrigerator. But there's more that can be done with those grilled ears of corn. Cutting the kernels off, they can go into a chopped salad and move from side dish to entree.

And on hot days, that's another marker of summer--putting meals on the table with as little effort as possible.

Now: Farmers' Market Fresh Grilled Corn on the Cob
Later: Grilled Corn and Chopped Vegetable Salad

NOW: Grilled Corn on the Cob

The most important part of this recipe is the corn itself. The fresher the corn, the better the taste. When you're picking out corn, select ears that have green husks and golden silks.

Yield 4 servings plus left-overs (which you will need for the LATER recipe)

Time 15 minutes


8 ears of corn, shucked, silks removed, washed
3 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and pepper


Preheat the grill.

Break the ears in half or cut into 3" lengths. The ears you're saving to make the salad can be left whole. Pour the olive oil onto a large plate. Season with sea salt and pepper. Roll each piece of corn in the oil.

Using tongs, grill the corn on all sides until lightly browned. Remove from the grill and serve hot.

LATER: Parsley-Corn Chopped Salad

The salad can be prepared ahead and refrigerated but it tastes better if served at room temperature.

Yield 4 servings

Time 15 minutes


3-4 ears of grilled corn
1 large bunch Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, skin on
1 tablespoon yellow onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, washed, peeled, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and pepper


Put the balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan and reduce by half over a low flame. Set aside to cool.

Using a sharp knife, cut off the kernels and put into a mixing bowl. Place the garlic clove on a skewer or the point of a sharp knife. Char in a flame so the skin burns off. Brush off any bits of burnt skin and roughly chop the garlic.

Add the charred garlic, parsley, and onions to the mixing bowl. Drizzle with the olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar. Season to taste with sea salt and pepper.

Transfer to a serving dish.


Instead of using a raw carrot, grill a carrot cut into slabs 1/4" thick; dredged the slabs in seasoned olive oil and grill until lightly browned; let cool and chop into pieces the same size as the corn kernels; add to the salad

Grill asparagus dredged in seasoned olive oil, then chop into pieces and add to the salad

Quarter cherry tomatoes and add to the salad

Add 1 cup cooked couscous

Add 1 medium sized avocado, peeled, roughly chopped

Add 6 medium sized shrimp, washed, peeled, deveined, and grilled, roughly shopped

Crumble 3 pieces of crisp bacon on the salad and toss

Shred 1/2 cup turkey or chicken breast and add to the salad

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cherry Tomatoes and Pasta Go Hand in Hand

I only grow cherry tomatoes. Which doesn't mean I don't enjoy eating heirlooms like Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, or Green Zebras. Because we have large, beautiful trees in the backyard, we only get partial sun in the garden. Our house stays cool even during the hottest days and that's good news, but larger tomatoes don't grow well without full sun. I'm not complaining though.

The cherry tomatoes are sweet like candy.

At this time of year, cherry tomatoes are plentiful. Not just in our garden, which has gone kind of cherry-tomato-crazy, but in the farmers' markets as well. Big baskets of perfectly ripe tomatoes are selling for $1.00/basket. They're perfect for salads and skewering. With a plentiful supply, they also make a delicious pasta sauce.

Pasta alla Checca

Yield 4 servings

Time 30 minutes


1 pound pasta, penne, gnocchi style, fussili, or spaghetti
1 basket farmers' market fresh cherry tomatoes, stems removed, washed, quartered
1 bunch basil, washed, stems removed
1 garlic clove, skin removed, minced
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese


Put the quartered tomatoes into a large bowl, season with sea salt and pepper, add the olive oil,minced garlic, and toss. Do this a few minutes before you cook the pasta.

Add the kosher salt to a large pot with a gallon of water, heat to boiling, add the pasta, and stir well. Stir every couple of minutes to prevent the pasta from sticking together. After 10 minutes sample a piece of pasta. When it's cooked to your taste, strain, and put the pasta into the bowl with the seasoned tomatoes.

Toss well. Chop or tear by hand the basil leaves and add to the pasta. Top with grated cheese and serve immediately.


Over an open flame, char the garlic clove with the skin still on. Remove the blackened skin, mince the garlic

Add 1/4 cup finely chopped, pitted olives, cracked green or black

Add 2 anchovies, minced

Add 1 tablespoon red onion, finely chopped or cut into thin rings

Roasted Cherry Tomato Pasta Sauce

Cooked into a sauce, cherry tomatoes have a flavor that is different from their large-bodied cousins. One basket makes enough sauce to serve 4 people, so the price-break is good.

If you want, the sauce can be made ahead, frozen, and used weeks later with little loss of flavor.

Yield 4 servings

Time 60 minutes


2 baskets farmers' market fresh cherry tomatoes, stems removed, washed
4 garlic cloves, skins removed, minced
1 cup Italian parsley leaves, washed, finely chopped
4 shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, finely chopped
1/2 medium yellow onion, skin removed, washed, finely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon sweet butter
Sea salt and pepper


Toss the cherry tomatoes in a bowl with the olive oil, half of the minced garlic, season with sea salt and pepper, place on a baking tray that has been lined with a Silpat or parchment sheet. Bake 45 minutes in a 400 degree oven.

Reserve the seasoned olive oil in the bowl and use to saute the remaining garlic, parsley, onion, and mushrooms until lightly browned. Set aside.

Put the roasted tomatoes, including all the liquid on the baking tray, through a food mill. Add the tomato sauce and pulp to the saute pan.

Simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the sweet butter, taste, and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper.

Toss with pasta and serve with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.


Use the tomato sauce without the vegetable saute

With the vegetables, saute 1 cup smoked sausage or Italian sausage, finely chopped, until lightly browned

Use fresh basil instead of the Italian parsley

Add 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne to the saute

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Discrete Charm of Cooking: Julie & Julia

There are a handful of films that celebrate the pleasure of cooking: Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman, Babette's Feast, and Like Water for Chocolate.

Add Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia to the list.

Meryl Streep owns the best parts of the film. In her portrayal, Julia Child has a goofy, good-natured flamboyance as she shambles around Paris first eating and then cooking classic French dishes.

In his comic masterpiece, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoise, Luis Bunuel refuses to let his characters eat a delicious-looking roast chicken. While Bunuel wanted to torture his bourgeois for their vices and indulgences, Nora Ephron celebrates people who enjoy eating and cooking. For Julie and Julia, two very different women in very different times, cooking changed their lives.

Julia Child became the teacher extraordinaire for a generation who wanted to master the Art of French Cooking. Her book became a standard along with The Joy of Cooking. Her PBS show, The French Chef, ran for ten years and made complex French techniques seem positively fun.

As her blog, book, and the movie make clear, Julie Powell was living an unglamorous life in a very small apartment when she stumbled on an idea that would make her famous. Blogs were becoming popular and Julie needed a project that would put shape to her life. Putting 2 and 2 together, she came up with the inspired idea of cooking every recipe in volume one of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year.

Blogging allowed an internet audience to follow her daily diary entries as she struggled to learn French kitchen techniques so she could master classics like boeuf bougoignon which is featured prominently in the film. Unedited and spontaneous, the blog struck a cord and her online audience made her famous.

Amy Adams brings real charm to the character of the blogging-novice cook, but Julie's cooking always seems a means not an end. Cooking everything in Julia's book is a project. Mastering boef bougoignon is a task. What she cooks is enjoyed by her husband and their friends but only in the scene where Julie tastes a poached egg for the first time do you see her really enjoy eating.

Julia's part of the movie, mostly her days in Paris when her husband, Paul, was stationed in the American embassy, is culled from her posthumously published memoir My Life in France. In the book and the film, she talks about her love for classic French cooking and Paul.

For a foodie, watching Julia eat her way through the best of French cooking is sheer pleasure. And for someone who likes to cook--that would be me--I was deeply moved by the way Nora Ephron, herself a dedicated cook, lavishes attention on the details of cooking.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

How We Learn to Cook

The only time my dad came in the kitchen was to ask when dinner was ready. True to his generation he literally couldn't boil water. My mother and grandmother taught me to cook.

Long before there were neighborhood farmers' markets, my mom liked to stop at roadside stands to buy fresh tomatoes, corn, and strawberries. She followed recipes but also liked to experiment. She enjoyed having my sister and myself in the kitchen with her because she believed that cooking was fun.

I regarded it as a parental duty to teach my sons as my mom taught me.

When Franklin was six years old I gave him a step stool so he could reach the cutting board, a bunch of parsley, and a knife. He did an excellent job mincing the parsley. The only problem we had was when his mom saw that I had outfitted him with a very sharp 8" chef's knife.

She disapproved mightily. But no blood was spilled that day, and Franklin has grown up to be a very good cook, so has his younger brother. Having taught them both a few kitchen skills, they are off and running.

Recently a reader of the blog and a friend, Connie Ciampanelli, sent a remembrance of her mom. Connie picked up her mom's enthusiasm for cooking, even as, over time, she discovered farmers' markets and a different style of cooking.

Mom was a cook of the fifties, we had mostly canned vegetables. Once she brought home an extremely exotic item: Del Monte canned zucchini with tomato sauce. We were enthralled. Yuk. Major, major yuk!
I remember clearly going to the neighborhood store and seeing these big purple vegetables and wondering what the hell they were. I know now. Eggplant. Eggplant? What's eggplant? I don't see any eggs. Wow, I do digress...

Mom went back to work when my youngest brother started school, so I would have been about thirteen or fourteen. As the oldest girl, I was bequeathed the responsibility of cooking weeknight suppers (we were working class folks, it wasn't called dinner) for the seven of us. Here is a capsule of Mom's instructions:

"Peel (here insert vegetable: potatoes, carrots, green beans, themselves a rarity) cut into quarters, cover with water, bring to a boil and cook for one hour." Everything was cooked for one hour, yes, let's cook the nutrients right out of those babies.

EVERY supper had potatoes, never rice, Pasta was spaghetti and meatballs once a week. On Wednesdays. Dad liked his routine. Anything more exotic was not ignored but unheard of. We had meat with baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes. Dad would settle for nothing else. Scalloped? Au Gratin? Nah, too fancy. Rice? That's for sissies. God, when I think of the way we ate! But the salvation is that it was all done with love.
These days, how we learn to cook and who teaches us has become more than just a personal issue. The current health care debate includes an argument that medical costs are increasing at an alarming rate partly because of how we eat and how much we rely on ready-made and fast foods.

Michael Pollan has a thoughtful essay,"Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch," in the New York Times Magazine, where he talks about the effect of mass marketing on the way we cook and feed ourselves. The net effect, he says, is that today Americans infrequently cook "from scratch" and usually regard cooking as a chore, something to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Statistically, he explains, when people cook their own food, obesity levels decline. The question is, how to encourage people to get back into the kitchen?

Looking back at how I learned to cook, like Connie, I was lucky that my mother taught me to enjoy cooking. In the kitchen the other day I wanted to show Michael, our youngest son, how to roast a chicken breast with parsley. He looked at me mystified. "Why do you think you need to show me? Franklin and I are your sons. We know already."

By osmosis or example, if we're lucky, our kids pick up on our love of cooking. That's a very good thing.