stuffed prunes of Buen Appetito

In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t been blogging much. My excuses include work, Ironman training, and my new favorite time-suck, Pinterest (which apparently is changing the way people blog).

Though I haven’t been cooking and baking up a storm like I did when I started this ‘lil site, we haven’t been lacking in the good food department. There are plenty of places to try speckled along our stretch of California beach (I smell bacon on my whole bike ride to work each morning, mingled with the smell of sea and campfire), and the hubby’s been cooking a lot more. The best part? He seems to genuinely enjoy it. I get frequent eggy breakfasts upon returning home from 6 a.m. Masters swims, and in the last month he’s been known to whip up osso bucco, or lamb tongue/beef heart stew on weeknights. Currently, he’s making his own bitters. NICE.

But there is one “recent” favorite I thought I’d share with you: a wee little appetizer we cooked for friends on New Year’s Eve … our foodiest yet, spent with our charcuterie and French technique master friend Chris (and his excellent sous chef, Rebecca.) We chose these Stuffed Prunes of Buen Appetito, which we discovered on The Splendid Table radio program and cooked for our parents a few Christmases ago. Here’s a little preview:

Soak prunes in a briny, wine-y marinade, stuff Dijon mustard and a macadamia nut inside, stuff with a prawn and wrap in a slabs of fatty bacon? You can’t really go wrong with that. (OK, I’ve been watching too much Bourdain.) But you must admit, they do look appetizing. And that is the job of an appetizer, non? Anyway, this was just the beginning of a night of memorable, yet classic, subdued flavors, which we sampled well past the turning of the calendar to 2012.

There’s the master chef at work…

After welcoming an iPhone 4S into my repertoire I haven’t been toting the fancy camera around much. But that’s no reason to stop blogging, and I’m going to try to be a bit more regular, even with just good old Instagram and Camera+ at my disposal. Here’s a peek into the other dishes that satiated us into a new year.

We started with duck confit with mixed greens and pomegranate,

accompanied by a fine selection of cheeses of course.

Then we transitioned into crab bisque with puff pastry lids,

and finished off the night (and 2011) with all-day-long poached pears (in red wine, anise, cinnamon, and cloves) with pistachio nuts and full-fat Greek yogurt:

Winnipeg’s chill was offset by the warm, luxurious flavors, and the meal was a great send-off as we headed back to San Diego the next day. More to come, but for now, the recipe for the prunes, below.

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eggplant caponata

I first alluded to this dish back when I posted on a cold noodle salad I’d made for a dinner in my favorite style: that is to say, tapas, or little plates. It’s a trendy word these days, but eight times out of 10 I’d rather have a cocktail party at my table over a big plate of food.


This past week, almost two years later, that dish came to mind again. We’d been invited to an Italian-style potluck, and as usual, I signed up for appetizers. It was a mid-week gathering, and so being the working woman that I am, I had to enlist my second set of hands to do the dirty work, once I’d thought up our piece de resistance. There was so much food that we went home with enough to serve again to friends on Friday night. With fresh mussels, green salad from their garden (in February?!? What is this California or something?), and a cheese plate, it was tapas time all over again.

If you love the meaty, mushroom-meets-scallops consistency of long-cooked eggplants, then get out your pan because this is a recipe for you. It doesn’t skimp on the olive oil, making it what I’d imagine to be an authentic Sicilian caponata, perfect for soaking up soft and crusty Italian bread (we ate ours all up, hence the crackers’ debut in these photos).

Best of all? This stuff  just keeps getting better as it sits in your fridge, and can be used as an impromptu pizza topping for pitas, or just eaten straight outta the jar with a spoon. I found Bittman’s use of olive oil a tad excessive (although it was lovely how it soaked up the pigment from the peppers and eggplant) so feel free to reduce to four tablespoons if you want to experiment with a lower-fat version. Try it at least once with the full six tablespoons, though.

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kale chips

Remember these?

The leafy crunchy greens that had me  swooning in a Colorado mountain town are back. Say hello to kale chips: so much more than just a stand-in for those Doritos you’re trying to hide from view.

With my oven already roaring at 400° from two other dishes and a healthy bunch of lacinato kale in my fridge, I finally got around to try making these myself. Lacinato kale is different from the regular curly kale you often see in grocery stores. It’s sometimes called “dinosaur kale,” and like any self-respecting T-Rex, it holds up particularly well to heat.

What runner/triathlete out there doesn’t love a good salty snack? Maybe it’s all the salt we lose on those mammoth bike rides and speed drills. Maybe it’s just a good old fashioned craving. Whatever it is, it’s tasty and packed full of all those things your eyes gloss over when reading articles in Runner’s World and Clean Eating.

Things like beta carotene, vitamins K and C, calcium, and antioxidants. Those age-old nutrients that we’ve only recently decided to heroize into  “super foods,” “power foods” and “clean foods.”

Well kale is as mighty as they come, and it tastes great too. It’s nutty and not as heavily sulfurous as some of the other cruciferae specimens. It’s a dark mineral-green, which to me says “good for you” like coffee beans say “hello day.”

And crisped-up in a hot oven with just some good olive oil and salt, there is no better destiny for the wrinkled kale leaf. Paired with a cold beer and some sweet evening relaxation, these guys almost, almost, make me want to toss the tortilla chips sneering at me from behind my morning muesli.

But then I remember the salsa. Oh, the salsa. Too heavy for such dainty chips as these, and just not the right flavor match either. I can’t let the salsa down!

And so I don’t toss the tortillas — with their oil and calories and lack of antioxidants — because they’ll come in handy one day when I just don’t care about so-called Superfoods. But until that moment comes, I’ll take the Super, and all the taste that comes along with it.

Kale Chips

1 bunch of kale, washed, stemmed, and torn into chip-sized pieces

olive oil

your favorite salt

Preheat oven to 400. Toss the kale pieces in a big bowl with a few drizzles of olive oil. Sprinkle with a few pinches of salt (kosher, sea, Celtic, or harvested from the rocks of the coast, your choice). Bake for 8-12 minutes, or until the edges of some of the pieces have just begun to brown. Remove to the counter top to cool, and serve as a snack or appetizer.

fresh spring rolls

Spring rolls in. Rolls of spring. Freshly spring rolls in. I tried coming up with a more clever title, but sometimes simplicity is best.  Besides, even with today’s showers, experience tells me flowers are still a ways off. Until then, food will have to brighten my spirits.

Fresh spring rolls. I’ve made them a few times now, varying the ingredients and dipping sauces according to my mood and the contents of my fridge. They are much healthier than the fried spring roll variety, and an impressive contriubution to bring to a party. (The last one I brought them to inspired this Epicurious blogger’s partner to take a picture of them! Fame felt so near it tickled.)

A trip to an Asian market or specialty food store should set you up with everything you need for these appetizers. Rice paper comes in packages of a lot. They look like tortillas made of overhead projector paper. Or the velum paper that brides-to-be love to use on home-made wedding invitations. They are hard, and need to be softened first in warm water.

You can steer Thai, Japanese, or Chinese in your choice of ingredients. I used matchsticks of carrot (which I can do now thanks to my new Japanese mandolin!) bean sprouts, lettuce (crunchy iceberg works better here), red pepper, scallions, and cilantro or Thai basil.  (See recipe following for guideline amounts.)

You’ll also need finely chopped peanuts, and some type of sauce: purchased or whipped up from bottles of chili, soy, and fish sauce camping out in your fridge behind last week’s leftovers.

After all that slicing and stirring comes the fun part. Boil a few cups of water and pour it into a wok or shallow bowl. Add cold water until the water is no longer boiling, but still hot. It shouldn’t burn your fingers. Take a sheet of rice paper and immerse it in the water for no more than ten seconds. If you over-soak the paper, it will rip when you try to roll it and yield mass frustration. (Trust me.) It will continue to soften as you work with it.

Remove the paper carefully, and place it on a clean, dry towel. Arrange your ingredients in whatever order makes the most sense to you. Whatever you put down first will be what people see. Laying your thai basil out first makes for an attractive presentation.

Play. Basil, lettuce, bean sprouts, carrots, scallions, red pepper, a sprinkling of peanuts, a little bit of hot sauce. (Next time I would pack them fuller than these pictures show.) You can also add leftover shrimp, chicken, pork, or tofu cubes.

Roll the bottom of the paper up over the filling, pressing it down onto itself on the other side. Press and tuck the paper around the filling, trying to get it rolled as tightly as you can without ripping the rice paper.

Fold the sides in. If I’d used more filling, the sides would get tucked in rather than draping over like this:

Tuck your fingers in ahead of the fililng and continue rolling the whole thing up towards the top of the paper. Press it all together tightly. Fill up your favorite portable container or arrange the rolls on a platter.  They are most fun to eat as one, but if you like you can cut them diagonally as the first few pictures show.

I don’t usually follow a recipe for these guys, but consulted the great Bittman in order to bring you more precise amounts if you so desired them. He also provides a good chili dipping sauce recipe (although a little watery), which I’ve included. Add some plum sauce for thickness. Here on fresh cracked pepper there’s a great peanut sauce recipe that compliments these nicely too.

Have fun experimenting, and hopefully these little crunchy bursts of color will drive this late winter rain away.

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dolmas done right

I first tasted dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, in Greece. I was 19 and still more or less uneducated in the cuisines of the near East. They were delicately Mediterranean, bursting with new combinations of taste and texture.

My friend and I were sharing a white stucco flat on the island of Naxos, overlooking the Aegean Sea. We had met an Australian woman named Grace, who introduced us to the cigar-shaped delicacies packed in olive oil. I was a sucker for anything offered to me in that accent — or any accent, for that matter. To this day I still adore two of her recommendations: dolmas and halwa, a sweet spun from sesame-seeds.

In those lazy days we lived on dolmas and baklava. These days all I can find are the canned ones packed in excessive amounts of oil, unless I want to pay a dollar apiece just up the street. With the way the weather has turned, that seems like a steep price to pay to have a cool Greek snack at hand. If you love the nutty, lemony squish of a chilled dolma on a dog-day afternoon, a dolma’s all that will do ya.

And then — thank Zeus! — along came my friend Susan. Being schooled herself in these mysterious dolmatic ways, she passed on her expertise to me. Though I observed more than I participated, I learned that making them yourself cuts the oil and the need to fly back to Naxos. I also found out that dolma is from the Turkish word for “stuffed thing.” Turns out I have more in common with this finger food than I thought.

Grape leaves should be easy to find in a well-stocked international grocery store. I used a California-Style brand called Castella, but the choice was rather arbitrary in front of a shelf full of them. Grape leaves must be one of those foods, like the “single use appliance,” that doesn’t seem to have many other uses. I declare these, however, to be wise stewardship of the leaves that nurture our wine-producing grapes the world over. If they’re good enough for grapes, they’re good enough for me.

These are an easy substitute for the endless chopping, precision rolling, and meticulous fish- handling of sushi. They are deliciously cool and light, the perfect compliment to a serene back porch gathering around a pitcher of Sangria, or to a rollicking twilight tapas bash. Easy to make and easy to eat, these dolmas are so good you might just want to break a plate or two. Just make sure they’re your own, and not someone else’s Royal Daulton.

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40 days of hummus

I just realized that I started this new site in sync with the beginning of Lent. What was I thinking? Isn’t this supposed to be a time of renunciation (at least for those of certain faith of which I happen to be a part of)?

But before I could even think about what on earth a Lenten food blog might look like, my thoughts turned to what Lent is about in the positive. Perhaps this is just an elaborate justification for not giving anything up. Whatever it is, it makes me grateful, and I think that’s kind of the point.

We usually associate Lent with self-denial. But this time in the Christian year is not just about becoming vegetarian or denying yourself a few meals. While these things have played a role in Lent, so has teaching new believers and restoring drifted ones, inviting the poor into one’s home, and cultivating divine awareness through prayer and meditation.

The 6 Sundays during Lent aren’t even counted in the 40 days, but instead are termed “Mini Easter” celebrations. I like how in the midst of the solemn 40-day procession towards Good Friday, people found ways to savour the things of the Earth.

Maybe the rest of us could focus our 40 days on filling our kitchens and diets with more hospitality, generosity, creativity, and life. I am reminded that the word lent quite literally means spring. Green things are on the horizon, however frozen our world may now appear.

Driving home from church last night, the words spoken to me echo in my mind: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then I got to thinking about what any normal person would think about on such an holy day. Hummus.

It’s a mediterranean spread made with chickpeas, but it also refers to the organic material derived from partial decay of plant and animal matter. Mmmm, mmm. That went with the “returning to dust” theme, didn’t it? So while I pondered whether I’ll end up in the carrot or beet row of someone’s future garden, I whipped up a couple batches of spreadable earthiness. And they all taste better than compost, I promise.

Given the persistent grayness that has descended upon this city and the fact that the book I’m reading (though exquisitely written) is also bleak and dismal, I decided to put some colour into my day via hummus. Inspired by the “beet this hummus” at the restaurant I worked at for some time, I decided to see what other hues I could transform the humble chickpea into.

I felt like a 5 year old with three new cans of play-dough. For the plain one, I added some ground cumin, chili powder, and turmeric. For the fushcia one, I boiled up some beets — you really don’t need much, even one quarter-sized slice will turn the hummus pink. I garnished it with black pepper which I thought went nicely with the bright colour. For the green one: boiled spinach along, a drizzle of pumpkin oil and basil.

Go ahead and experiment! (I tried adding black beans once and it turned out purple!) These “hummi” would be great for theme parties (St. Patrick’s day, Valentine’s) or just to spice up a dreary February day.

Basic Hummus

1 large can (1lb/13 oz) chickpeas, or 2 smaller ones, liquid reserved

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

2 T fresh squeezed lemon juice (ok ok, the bottled stuff will do)

1-2 T tahini paste (peanut butter will also do, but the flavour is not as subtle)

salt and pepper

Pour the liquid off the chickpeas, reserving it. Rinse off the peas. Place into an empty yogurt container, or other cylindrical container (or into the pitcher part of a blender. I like the hand blending method much better, though.) Add either 2 T of the reserved liquid, or 1 T of olive oil (the first is higher in sodium, the second in fat). Add the garlic, depending on how peppy you like your spread. Blend, moving the hand blender in an up and down motion. You will have to stop periodically (unplug!) and scrape around the blade to “help” the blender get to all the peas. Continue until you have a nice, creamy paste. Add the tahini paste and salt and pepper. Blend again.

Now for the fun. Add any of the following, according to your tastes! Plain yogurt (for extra creaminess, but keep in mind it won’t last as long in the fridge), cumin or curry powder, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, basil, lemon zest, pumpkin oil, chili powder, boiled spinach leaves, cooked beets, cooked carrot, other beans, etc.

Serve with toasted pita chips, pretzels, and fresh veggies. Or, spread on burgers, sandwiches, and in pitas.