2010: Most Memorable Food Moments

Boy.

Whew.

Damn.

As I sit here and let out a massive sigh and reflect on 2010, I can’t help but feel dizzy. Elated, exhausted, spent, happy but definitely dizzy.

And it’s been one of the best years of my life.

In the past twelve months I traveled. I wrote a book. I photographed. I spoke. I lectured. I listened. I learned. I worked my ass off. I spent 3.268 months on the road. I laughed more than any human should be allowed, and I even cried just a little bit.

I made new friends. I turned 40. I realized that everything I’ve ever done has led me to this point of my life, even when I hadn’t a clue. I realized the best is yet to come. I realized I’m old enough to know better but still young enough to do it (I think).

I realized that being in business for yourself is what makes me happiest even if it’s scary as shit most days.

And I did it all with one of the most beautiful people I could ever hope to know: my talented, gorgeous, plane-delaying husband.

I can’t even really summarize what this year has been for me in anything other than general terms. It hurts my brain if I tried. Suffice it to say that more has happened in the last 365 days than in the last 10 years of my life.  I’ll leave it at that.

But perhaps the most important thing about this year and this blog is you. Yes, you. Readers and friends, the ones who stop by and engage me, teach me, entertain me, leave comments, send messages. And what, you thought I was blogging just for me?  To you I offer my heartfelt gratitude. It’s you that keeps me here.

And I thank Gwyneth Paltrow, too. I really do.

Rather than work on highlights I’ll just select my most memorable meals of 2010. The flavors of these moments, the memories, and the company in which they were shared will forever be important to me. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

1. Tortillas, Mexico

In January we headed to Mexico for the Food Blogger Camp in Ixtapa, Mexico where I successfully lived off of fresh corn tortillas for 5 days. And a few margaritas, naturally. Back in January I wrote:

A great tortilla is a marvel: warm, fluffy yet dense with a chewy texture and true corn flavor. One bite and you begin to curse the grocery store variety for its lack of character and its boring uniformity. Luckily for all of us we were treated to glorious handmade tortillas three times a day: as the base for a hearty huevos rancheros, wrapped around tender lengua for lunch, and as an ancient utensil for folding around mole de pollo for dinner. And the tortillas de maiz were just so perfect that no plate ever went uncovered with at least a few thrown on top for good measure. Many times I’d tuck spoonfuls of fresh guacamole inside, top with a sprinkle of salty cotija cheese and dollops of cool-yet-picante salsa y nada mas. A perfect lunch.

That pretty much sums it up. I’m looking forward to the hunt for marvelous tortillas next month as we return to Mexico yet again for another Food Blogging Camp. Can’t wait to see everyone!

2. Coq au vin A la Biche au Bois, Paris

I tend to order coq au vin every time I see it on a menu which means I’ve had plenty of so-so versions of this dish. It seems I can never pass up chicken, wine, onions, mushrooms and lardons even when I suppose I should. I’m happy to say that my dish at this Parisian spot hit the mark. Thanks to David for taking us and to read his review of A la Biche au Bois here. It was a perfect Paris evening!

3. Lunch Tarragona, Spain

Last summer while speaking at a conference we joined our friends Denise, Cindie and Nico for a long afternoon lunch at Txantxangorri restaurant in Placa de la Font. It was simple and oh-so-Spanish, one of those moments when you can’t top the combination of excellent company, chilled red wine (yes, chilled), platters of potatoes, padron peppers and morcilla and quickpeas.  Was it the greatest Spanish food I’ve ever eaten? No. Was it one of the best moments of the year? Absolutely.

4. Adam’s Birthday Dinner Jitlada, Los Angeles

Have you been to Jitlada, the darling of Hollywood’s Thai town? It’s a favorite for those seeking flavor and lots of heat, but the southern Thai specialties towards the back of the menu stand apart from anything else. Fried morning glory salad, deep fried fish, green curry mussels, anytime we eat here is a treat. Add close friends and lots of beer to the mix and it’s super special. And yes, I was sucking the meat off the fin of that fish, I wasn’t about to let any go to waste. Photo by Wade Hammond.

5. Dinner and drinks Hotel Meurice, Paris

This past September I joined the team from Veuve Clicquot for the harvest in Reims. Before our trip to the champagne region we had a splendid dinner at Hotel Meurice that involved champagne (Veuve, naturally) and a dish of foie gras with hazelnuts and cherries. To this day I dream of that special evening, I really did feel like a kid in a candy shop. Beautiful hotel, delicious champagne, Paris. Do you really need anything else?

6. Deep Fried Candy Bars San Diego County Fair

Lest you think I’m a snob who is just picking meals so I can say “Paris, France” over and over again, I’d like to remind you that I can get down and dirty with the best of them. And while doing research for my upcoming book I finally had the chance to enjoy Deep Fried Mars Bars. And let me tell you the personal dilemma I have with them: how can something so inherently disgusting and trashy and over the top be so completely delicious? How? How? Someone please tell me. Because they are truly are tasty. And I hesitated including them here (and in my book but more on that later!) but jeez, I’m weak to their greasy spell.

7. Kimchi Jjigae All The Damn Time, our house, Long Beach

There’s not one specific moment that I can remember when it comes to this Korean tofu and kimchi soup. Even if there was it almost wouldn’t matter; this has been the most served dish at home this year and with good reason (the photo above was taken at BCD Tofu house, in case you were wondering.) Starting with a base of anchovy broth and water, kimchi is added, then gojujang, sometimes pork belly and always tofu. We’ll set out banchan, various little side dishes to serve alongside, and then eat the soup for days until it disappears. And of course it gets better with time. We’re both not sure why we are addicted to this soup so much. Man I need to visit Korea now. Who’s comin’ with?

8. Socca Chez Pipo, Nice

Life-changing. Simple. And what my dining pals didn’t know is that I was only being nice by sharing the large plates of socca in front of me that day. I wanted to order more, actually. Chickpea flour, some water, olive oil, a dash of salt make a batter that’s poured in a large flat cake and baked, with a few rakes over the surface during the cooking process. It comes out warm, gets sprinkled with more salt and devoured instantly. Perfect finger food. I could eat this every single day.

9. Laksa Singapore

Please file this under No-Matter-How-You-Try-You-Just-Won’t-Be-Able-To-Have-It-This-Good-Unless-You-Go-Back. A coconut-based curry soup with thick tender rice noodles, I knew I would fall in love with this instantly. And perhaps I could start practicing to recreate it as close as possible, but eating a warm bowl of this on the streets of Singapore will always make it taste better.

10. Pretzel Croissant City Bakery, NYC

While New York City’s City Bakery has been around for 20 years I can say I never tried their Pretzel Croissants until this past summer. And then I tried it again. And again. And one last time. And then again during my last trip. I can now see what the fuss is about with this perfect little treat that is well, yes, half pretzel and half croissant. But I’m no baker so please don’t ask me about it. Just watch me eat them over and over and over and over…

I want to wish everyone a very happy and healthy New Year, there are so many exciting things coming up in 2011! I hope you’ll join me!



Coquito For Christmas

Last week while visiting with our banker (yes, there are some things you just have to actually go inside a bank branch, apparently) we got on the topic of food. Naturally. We were trading names of favorite restaurants, talking about the holidays, when our banker mentioned how he couldn’t wait to enjoy his family’s Christmas coquito.

As a Puerto Rican in Los Angeles I could only imagine the lengths he must go through in order to enjoy his food. Because unlike Chicago or New York or even Miami, we fall short when it comes to Puerto Rican food. Miserably short. I’m glad I spent years in Chicago, eating lechón and mofongo regularly and ever since my first trip to Puerto Rico last year I’ve realized how sad it makes me that it’s a bit harder to find here. But enough of the sad story. Back to that coquito!

I’ve never made coquito myself, the creamy sweet coconut concoction that’s a cousin to traditional egg nog.  Egg yolks, cream of coconut, spices, condensed milk and rum are blended then chilled and POW – it’s sweet and powerful! I must confess that I like it a bit more than standard egg nog and have decided that I’ll make it an annual tradition during Christmas starting this year. And I promise to toast my banker each time I make it!

Have a wonderful Christmas everyone!

Coquito adapted from allrecipes.com

3 egg yolks
1 can evaporated milk (12 oz)
1 can cream of coconut (14 oz)
1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 oz)
½ cup white rum
½ cup water
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

In a double boiler, combine the egg yolks and evaporated milk. Stir to mix well and keep stirring. Cook until the mixture reaches 160˚F. Kitchen thermometers sure come in handy!

Transfer the egg and milk mixture to a blender and add all of the remaining ingredients. Blend for 30-45 seconds and then pour into a container. Chill for 4 hours to overnight. When ready to serve, pour into small glasses, shot glasses work just perfectly. This stuff is SWEET. Garnish with a sprinkle of nutmeg if you’d like.

How about some images of Christmas trees at our house? This year’s theme was pink and then some! Thanks to Teri Lyn Fisher for the use of her Rollei!

Survey Says: A True Story from The Mall

She was old but sharp and I knew she identified me yards before I even noticed her standing there. With a sweet smile and grey hair, she was the kind of woman just nutty enough to have 3 or 7 cats but sweet enough to make apologies for her behavior. She held her clipboard like it meant the world to her.

“Excuse me sir, do you speak Spanish?” she asked. “Not very well,” I replied, causing her to slow down on her list of pre-anticipated responses. Her pencil fumbled to find a new section, and once she did she began all over again as if I hit a secret reset button.

“Do you like hot dogs?”

In 30-something years I don’t think I’ve ever missed the opportunity for a smirk or off-colored response to that question; with this woman it didn’t seem appropriate. I said “But of course. Why? Are you inviting me over?”

She glazed over my answer, clearly not a part of her programmed assignment, and asked if I’d be interested in participating in a focus group for a new food product. Call me a sucker, but I’ll find almost any opportunity to make myself available for a marketing survey or questionnaire if it pertains to food. With 20 years of food marketing behind me I guess it’s just in my blood, and I’m just naturally curious to see what the big food manufacturers have up their sodium, preservative-laden sleeves. Besides, if anything I’d have a free lunch at the mall and it just sounded more fun than strolling through Bed, Bath and Beyond. It might take my mind off of asking why I was there in the first place.

She led me into a makeshift office, a space I imagined once held a lounge for part-time security guards or some generic Jewelry Pagoda or Earring Palace or Bracelet Temple. At that point she passed me off to another employee, a young Latin man with a stature and face not normally seen outside of a Mexican calendar. Instead of a shield and javelin, this Aztec warrior was armed with pens and release forms. I obliged as my mind raced with images of him saving a curvaceous goddess in a flawless feather headdress on top of a mountain–with perfect make up no less.

He asked me a variety of questions like “When was the last time you had a hot dog?”  and “How often do you eat hot dogs?” and “Do you like the following:?” before stumbling on the word panini. I took a moment to explain what it was to my new warrior friend because I know for a fact there were no Panini presses in Tenochtitlan. He deserved some slack. I explained the semantic difference between panini and panino and how it irks me before I completely interrupted myself.

“Hey, wait, I’m in the food business. I’m biased. Am I still allowed to participate?”

“I don’t see why not,” he answered after ruffling through some papers. Nothing jumped out. We proceeded.

“I’m going to have you answer these questions here on this computer. When you get to page 5 click ‘ok’ and we’ll bring out the food item for you to taste and rate.”

I answered questions about my buying habits, realizing they aren’t really average American food buying habits mainly because of what I do. I’m not trying to be uppity at all, it’s just that I’m not the poster child for frozen convenience foods and novelties from any of the big chain retailers. About the most I can do is the occasional Trader Joe’s frozen pizza although France’s Picard sure does make it look glamorous, no?

I reached the page that would allow me to taste this creation, and I’m not gonna lie, y’all: I was excited. After answering some question about not being physically or morally opposed to foods cooked with microwaves the Warrior brought over a pretzel dog on a paper plate, one small napkin and one tiny plastic cup of water. I was instructed to sip, then taste, then make notes, then sip again and taste as often as necessary in order to complete the questionnaire. I dutifully proceeded.

Over the past month I have tasted over 1,500 various dishes created by complete strangers. I have dug deep into my brain for words, expressions and phrases to use when describing all these flavors. As a judge for the open casting calls for Gordon Ramsay’s Masterchef Season 2 I’ve traveled from Boston to Portland tasting and rating food created by television hopefuls with dreams of fame sparkling in their eyes. It’s been both scary and exhilarating and if there wasn’t a pesky non-disclosure form involved I’d probably tell you more about it. But I share this side job with you because at no point in my life have I felt more ready to taste this secret pretzel dog, more willing to offer my opinion on the future of its success, and more happy that its presence in the marketplace didn’t rely on a complex set of scores and algorithms filled out by me.

Boy was I wrong.

How would you rate the color of this pretzel dog? What did it taste like? Was it overly salty? Not salty enough? How likely would you be to purchase this product for your family, 1 being not likely at all with 5 being very likely? What was the texture of the meat? At $3.49 for two would you consider this a value? The questions wouldn’t stop. I bit, I clicked. I clicked, I chewed.  And like Bill Bixby to Lou Ferrigno, I was pushed too far.

The marketer in me came out.

“I’m sorry,” I wrote, “but I cannot see how this is supposed to be a Pretzel Dog when all I see is a wiener wrapped in dough. There are no baked folds nor twists characteristic of a pretzel, and sampled without the meat there is no flavor, no joy. Could you not have added color or shine to this so-called pretzel? Large flecks of kosher salt? Heck, large white flecks of fake something, anything, to signal my brain that this is a pretzel? At best it looks like a wiener wrapped in flesh-colored dough, and at worst it looks like something from a movie* I’ve seen. You asked.”

I finished by selecting the “Complete Survey” button, realizing I didn’t really offer an opinion on flavor. But when you think about it, these foods are never really about flavor as much as they are about portability, ease, and salt. Tons of salt. I began to hope that the consumer of a product like this would remember that it’s not that different than a hot dog, a food that offers you two choices: meat and bun. Two opportunities to buy the best of both and not get suckered into a buy-one-you-must-accept-the-other-of-our-choosing.

I told the Warrior that I was finished, he took my half-eaten pretzel dog away and led me to another counter. I waited a few minutes, realizing I wasn’t going to get that free lunch I was hoping for and that I’d have to brave the mall once again for what I originally came for.

“Here you go, Mr. Armendariz. Thank you for your participation today.”

I couldn’t believe it. A check in the amount of Four Dollars. I could drive through a car wash, I could get a latte, I could buy a taco. There were many things I could do with those four dollars but I can tell you this: I won’t be saving it in order to buy any Pretzel Dogs in my future.

I said goodbye to the Warrior, tempted to tell him that if focus groups and surveys didn’t work out he could always model for covers of romance novels. I could totally see it.

I waded through disorganized metal folding chairs and exited the mall office. As I left I passed the little old woman with her clipboard again as I heard her ask another passerby “Do you speak Spanish?”

I hope they like pretzel dogs.

(* in 8th Grade health class. You ought to be ashamed of yourself for thinking otherwise.)

Book Reviews: Amazing Baking Books

This week’s reviews from Kristina Gill are all about baking. Not being much of a baker myself I find it easier to flip through gorgeous books about breads and cakes rather than disappoint myself in the kitchen. I should say that I’ve spent more time practicing this year than ever before so I suppose that counts for something, no? In the meantime, let’s take a look at the beautiful titles.

This massive awareness campaign about the quality of our food has made me even more of a stickler for what we eat than usual.  Admittedly, I have been partial to my own baked goods (over purchased ones) for quite some time now.  All the same, because I am able to buy eggs, milk, and butter from the farm down the street, I probably bake more than I should.  My primary excuse (in addition to trying out recipes in cookbooks) is that I’d prefer that my husband know exactly what’s in his breakfast food instead of wasting money on something industrially produced that he’d find in a cafe.  Really, I just find baking enjoyable, especially in the winter when I can try a home baked slice of cake with a hot cup of tea.

This week’s books are all about baking.

Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson (Chronicle Books 2010; photography by Eric Wolfinger).  This isn’t really about sweets, but you will never hear me complain if I have to take a perfectly toasted crusty warm piece of bread slathered with butter and jam (or just butter) instead of cake.  Tartine Bread is one of the most beautiful books I’ve seen this year.  I know I shouldn’t do this, but for me, it’s the American equivalent of Bourke Street Bakery.  It is too beautiful to put down, so captivating in its writing and photography, how can you not read through it cover to cover, and try at least one of the recipes?  Like BSB, the bulk of this book requires a bit of a commitment on your part.  If you’d like to cheat though, and you have a favorite local bakery, you can try out any of the savory recipes (and a couple of sweet) in the second half of the book which use the types of bread featured in the first half (French Onion Soup, Panade, Savory Bread Pudding…).  I don’t think it’s possible to be disappointed with this book. But in case you still have doubts, have a look at the video and tell me how long it took you to decide you just had to have a copy for yourself, or for someone else!

Baked Explorations:  Classic American Desserts Re-Invented by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito (Stewart, Tabori & Chang 2010; photography  by Tina Rupp). Whenever I need to proselytize in the workplace, I do two things.  I bake a typical American dessert and I place American flag toothpicks in the individual servings.  I arrive in the office, send an email letting everyone know there’s something sweet in the kitchen, and in no time, it’s gone.  Baked Explorations is the newest tool in my arsenal to help me spread the American Desserts Are the Best gospel.  Even though it says that these are American desserts re-invented, I didn’t find them so ‘re-invented’ that I would have known had they not told me!  Ginger molasses cookies, chocolate whoopie pies, double chocolate loaf (with peanut butter cream cheese spread, ok that’s original!!), baked cheese grits (ok, that’s not dessert), Mom’s olive oil orange bundt (ok, Mom never made that), and carrot coconut scones (all right, scones aren’t really classic American).  But the point is that this book is fabulous.  It is beautifully styled in a quirky American classic retro kind of way that exudes fun.  Bake something for the next dinner party you go to and you’ll steal the show!  This book is for anyone who wants American treats with a bit of a twist!

The Sono Baking Company Cookbook:  The Best Sweet and Savory Recipes for Every Occasion by John Barricelli (Clarkson Potter 2010; photography by Ben Fink) This is one of quite a few bakery books which have come out this year, and I have to say they are all very good.  When I think of a baking book, if I’m not going monothematic or special interest, and I’m not clutching Baking With Julia, I think a well-rounded book like this one should be on everyone’s shelf.  There are chocolate chunk cookies, pecan squares, spiced apple cake, red velvet cake, focaccia, cobblers, fruit tarts.  It’s not as intensive as Tartine Bread, so for home cooks who want to try something that doesn’t require a lot of rising time, and isn’t intimidating, this is a great selection of recipes even for beginners.  Try the savory tomato cobbler (with a flaky cheesy Pate Brisee!) next time you have great tomatoes.

Flour:  Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cake by Joanne Change with Christine Matheson (Chronicle Books 2010; photography by Keller + Keller). Like the Sono Baking Company book, this is a collection of professional bakery recipes for the home baker, savory and sweet.  The sweets are a bit more European than the Sono book, and quite a bit more technical.  It’s not really a beginner’s book, and not at all a book for someone who is scared by long lists with extensive detail, though there are some accessible recipes, like the chocolate chunk cookies!  (I’m obsessed with chocolate chunk cookies).  Little notes at the bottom of many of the recipes suggest flavor variations to get you thinking out of the box, and the author makes useful tips throughout the recipe to keep you on track.  In fact, the book starts with Joanne’s 12 top baking tips.  I very much appreciate that the recipes have imperial and metric measurements, something that I have grown to appreciate in my baking books since I’ve moved to using a scale almost exclusively.

Tender Volume II:  A Cook’s Guide to the Fruit Garden (Fourth Estate 2010; photography by Jonathan Lovekin). This is, together with Tender Volume I, one of my absolute favorite books.  This picks up where Volume I (Vegetables) left off.  Whereas Volume I was all savory, and I was prematurely disappointed, Volume II is almost exclusively dessert.  Slater begins with the story of how he selected the fruit trees and bushes for his garden.  The book is then arranged by fruit, and runs the gamut of every fruit imaginable, and some I probably will never have the opportunity to eat here unless I import my own specimen!   Nigel Slater has a relaxed cooking style, so this book is for any skill level.  I usually find myself clipping his recipes from his columns, and was happy to find one of my favorites, like this Courgette Cake that Matt and I reproduced with Mr Slater’s permission last year.  There is almost always a half of one of these loaves in our freezer.  In addition to delectable cakes and crumbles, there are also a few no bake desserts, like a fierce cheesecake.  I love this book.



Spice Islands Flavor Explorer Update and announcing the winner on Friday!

Man that was a long headline for this post, sorry about that! I wanted to share a few things about my Spice Islands Flavor Explorer project as well as let you know about the contest. First, for those of you who have entered I sincerely thank you! There were dozens of entries and they all looked absolutely amazing. We’ve whittled the entries to the final 10 and over the next few days I’ll be heading into my kitchen to create and taste them. And then I’ll cue up the drumroll and announce the winner as well as the runner-ups this Friday. I’m excited and as soon as I hit “send” for this post I plan on jogging around the block and running up and down my stairs to get into championship shape so that I can cook and eat like a pro. Ok, maybe I’ll skip the working out part.

In the meantime, I’ve written a few delicious recipes for the Spice Islands blog, have you seen them? I’ll be contributing recipes for the next few weeks but it was this recipe I wanted to draw your attention to.

In honor of a dear British friend (as well as in an effort to trick myself into thinking I’m not eating mounds of ‘french fries’), the recipe for my Paprika Chips with Roasted Garlic Cumin Aioli can be found here and holy smokes can I tell you that they’re good, if I do say so myself? They’re meant to snack on but they curiously became a main dish for me while photographing them at the studio and then I felt completely guilty that I ate nothing but fries, er, chips all day. Oh well, what else are holidays for?

Check back Friday for the winner! I gotta get busy — peace out!

Alice’s New Classic Brownies

Oh.

No, really, oh. Oh as in “Oh my, these brownies”  and “Oh damn, these brownies.”  Oh as “Oh I can’t believe this recipe is so amazing” and “Oh there goes any bit of self control I had.”

Get the picture?

You can roll your eyes a bit when you say “Oh”.  It helps.

Even though I don’t claim to have the world’s largest sweet tooth and go for salty over sweet most days, I can’t help but claim this brownie recipe as one of the best I’ve ever tasted. Because to me, brownies seem like the perfect treat in theory. Chocolately, studded with fun things like nuts or fruit, small and compact and enough to satisfy thanks to their rich nature. But sometimes, well, you can’t help but feel let down sometimes when you bite into a brownie that’s dry, too moist or not moist enough, tastes like a mix or worse, doesn’t resemble a brownie at all.

None of those annoying things happen with this recipe. And I want to give Alice Medrich one big giant hug next time I see her.

This recipe requires some very specific steps when making it. You must follow them, there’s no two ways about it. You must use a metal pan to make them, not glass or pyrex. Why? Because the entire pan goes into an ice bath for cooling after baking. Now, I’m no scientist and I haven’t asked Alice how or why this works, but I’m thinking it affects the texture of the brownie, giving them an absolutely perfect chewy exterior with the dreamy perfect inside you want in a brownie. And these brownies are indeed very chocolatey and fudgelike, but again, the outside is firm and just on the brink of being solid and cracklely. Is that a word? Crackley? Crackly? Crackle-ee? Editors and writers, speak up while I go and bake another batch!


Alice Medrich’s New Classic Brownies

This recipe comes from her 1999 book Cookies and Brownies via the Scharffen Berger site. Yes, read the recipe from beginning to end before making it. You must. And while chopped nuts are optional, I’ve added dried tart Montmorency cherries to the last batch we made with much success. The tart cherries punctuated the rich chocolate flavor well, and since I became addicted to them after last summer’s trip to Traverse City, Michigan and purchased 10 lbs of them, well, you see where I’m going with this.

Ingredients
1 stick of butter (8 tablespoons)
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate (I used Scharffen Berger’s 99% Cacao)
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla (shameless plug: Spice Islands Vanilla, please!)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup flour
2/3 cup chopped nuts like toasted walnuts or pecans or dried tart cherries
2 eggs

Method
Preheat your oven to 400˚.  Grab an 8-inch square metal baking pan. I repeat, grab an 8-inch square metal baking pan. No glass nor pyrex as it could crack when you get to the ice bath stage.

Line the metal baking pan with foil or parchment so that it comes up all four sides.

Melt the butter together with the chocolate in a double boiler or in a bowl placed above simmering water, not boiling water. Stir to mix, you want it smoooooooth.

With a spatula or wooden spoon, mix in the sugar, vanilla and salt. Add the eggs one at a time and then mix in the flour. Stir the mixture for 1 minute, until smooth. You’ll know it’s ready when it begins to come away from the sides of the bowl.

Add the nuts or dried fruit next, right before placing in the pan to bake.  Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the edges pull away from the pan.

While the brownies are in the oven, prepare the ice bath by using a large roasting or baking pan, larger than the 8-inch square baking pan that the brownies are in. Fill this large pan with ice cubes and cold water. Once the brownies have baked and are removed from the oven, place them into the ice bath but be careful not to splash any water onto the brownies. You don’t want that to happen. Let them cool in the ice bath and then remove and cut into 16 squares. Prepare to say “Oh!”



Visiting the Martha Stewart Show

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining the Spice Islands team at a taping of Martha Stewart’s daytime show. It was fantastic to be in New York City and so much fun to return to the show but this time I was worry-free! In 2008 I appeared on the Martha show and made my alfajores with her, and if you think I was nervous you don’t know the half of it. But this time? What a joy it was to be with great people and watch Martha and the show from the front row without worrying about messing anything up!

As a member of Martha’s Circle as well as my involvement with Spice Islands and Martha, I was able to snap some quick shots of the set and partake in a mini-tour before the show began. Let’s have a look, shall we?

This beautiful Christmas tree greets the guests of her show as they walk into the studio. I love the red theme going on here, it’s very seasonal. It also makes me wanna chomp on some candy reallllll bad.

Here’s a quick look into the show’s test kitchen. The kitchen staff prepares the all the food for the television program in here. It’s a real working kitchen which I think is totally cool.

You might recognize this: it’s the main set from the show. And it’s so completely beautiful. I don’t know how many people know this but this TV set is completely functional, from the sink to the fridge to the coolers. All of it. It’s pretty impressive.

Here’s a beautiful display of assorted Spice Island spices. It was the holiday baking show so naturally plenty of spices were on hand.  As a surprise everyone in the audience that day received a gift from Spice Islands. Lucky!

The producers assemble all the ingredients for upcoming segments. These are ingredients for Michael Kor’s Pineapple Upside Down Cake. Yes, please!

A view from the set into the audience. The last time I stood in this spot I was shaking in my boots, it was nice to be able to enjoy the scenery this time!

Getting ready for the show. Could I please live on the set? I totally wouldn’t mind.

If you’ve been to our studio in Long Beach then you know I have a weakness for cutting boards, both vintage and contemporary. I was happy to see Martha’s beautiful collection of cutting boards on the set. Don’t think I didn’t mentally compare our collections, ya know. Martha, your collection is aiiight.

Beautiful spices in gorgeous little bowls. Everything on the set has a purpose, it’s a real working kitchen.

Some beautiful pots and cups decorate the set. I fell in love with the stemware over the espresso machine.

Some happy pears.

There are some spaces the audience will never see, this deep sink is one of those places. And of course there’s a container of Martha’s Clean brand soap there.  I love this soap, it was in the giftbag from a Martha party this past summer.

A delightful honey set up and beautiful bowls of cranberries.

Here’s a shot of the backside of the kitchen island.  As you’d expect, it’s spotless and organized. My draw dropped over the beautiful John Boos butcherblocks that rest on the counter. And those ovens? Yes, they work! And notice the backwards kitchen mixer? It faces the audience which means you use it backwards.

The November 2010 cover of Living. Those pies!

The set’s back sink looks out onto a beautiful view of New York City. It’s not real, but I’m sure you knew this.

Another angle of the kitchen set.

A few feet down from the kitchen set are other areas. This is the Crafts set, I’m pretty sure it’s modeled after my own craft room at home.

Scissors and looms. Every little thing is in its perfect place, what an inspiration.

Gorgeous fabric, yarn and crafts.

A collection of crafts from Martha Stewart.

Michael Kors was the guest that day, completely entertaining as he baked alongside Martha. I really think he needs his own cooking show. Kors Can Cook?

Getting ready to take my seat, the show is about to start!

OMG IT’S MARTHA!!!!!!

Would you believe I wasn’t able to get a good shot of Michael and Martha? But that’s ok, it was an honor to just be there!

After the show Martha took questions from the audience about holiday baking and offered turkey tips. I wish she’d give this turkey a few tips.

Someone has fierce shoes!

Thanks to all the delightful Martha folks and my friends at Spice Islands and C-K. And Vicky, thank you for participating in my Crazy Face photo. You are the best :) And an update: Here’s the clip from the show we attended where Martha bakes with Spice Islands spices. You might learn a thing or two about their vanilla, click through to check it out :)


Potato Tacos

In the world of taquerias there are potato tacos (tacos de papa) and then there are potato tacos. And if you’ve never had one, it’s exactly what you think: tender chunks of potatoes are cooked with onions and spices and nestled inside a corn tortilla and topped with shredded lettuce and salsa.

Sometimes.

And sometimes they’re mashed and tucked inside a corn or flour tortilla and doused with Mexican crema and again, topped with lettuce, cabbage, salsa or pico de gallo.

And then there’s the Casa de Matt variety: a type that forsakes all pomp and circumstance and distills it down to the bare essentials. And it’s not very pretty.

When I cook at home I try my best to incorporate some type of quasi-balance. I like some freshness with my fried, some raw with my baked, some greens with the browns. But when I make this recipe I throw any type of balance out of the window and over the years it has become my guilty pleasure. Let’s take a look.

Mashed potatoes are seasoned with salt, pepper, copious amounts of sour cream, sometimes shredded cheese (almost any type I have!) and spread inside a pliable corn tortilla. These tacos are then fried in oil until crispy, drained on a paper towel so that I may kid myself that I’m removing some oil, and then doused — DOUSED — in hot sauce with a few pickled jalapeños on the side.

Could I add something fresh, say radishes or shredded cabbage? I could. But I don’t.

This is soul food, the crunchy greasy kind that tastes oh so good but is best enjoyed sporadically. Or when you find yourself with a giant mound of leftover mashed potatoes.

Matt’s Stripped Down Potato Tacos
These are all very basic approximations as I don’t think I’ve ever written it down. But it’s not hard to figure out.

Ingredients
Mashed potatoes, feel free to add additional seasoning or shredded cheese or a few spoonfuls of sour cream
Corn tortillas
Oil for frying

Method
1. Spread one or two tablespoons of the mashed potatoes onto half of a corn tortilla. Fold over to form a taco. Repeat, depending on how hungry you are.

2. Once formed, carefully place the tacos into hot oil. You want enough to slightly cover the taco but you won’t need to get crazy with a deep fryer. I suppose you could, though.

3. Fry until golden then use tongs to remove the tacos. Drain on paper towels and let cool slightly so you don’t burn your face off. Top with hot sauce.



Cookbook Reviews: Great Lookin’ Books!

It’s Friday! That means more book reviews from Kristina Gill, something we’re trying to do a bit more regularly, at least through the end of the year if I don’t wear Ms. Gill out! Since it’s officially gift season I can think of nothing better than cookbooks, can you? And when they all look good like this week’s entries, well, let’s just say I’ll make sure to safely secure my stocking this year to accommodate the weight of books, hint hint.

KG: When I first started experimenting in the kitchen, I admit I was attracted to that perfect, hoyty-toyty kind of food.  I couldn’t be away from the TV when Great Chefs Great Cities was coming on because I just loved that program.  I had to have pictures in my cookbooks because, in retrospect, I cared more about how the food looked than how it tasted.  The more I learned to prepare the food I liked, the more I cared about eating what I liked.  Spending tons of time in the kitchen was ok, but getting great food without great effort was even more fun.  This week’s books are about just that.  (Australian + British style)

Bill’s Basics by Bill Granger (Quadrille Publishing 2010; photography by Mikkel Vang) This is a general cooking book, as the title suggests.  The back cover reads “100 classic recipes made simple”…maybe it should have been called Bill’s Classics…All jokes aside, this book by Australian cook Bill Granger has an even distribution of cuisine types, Asian influenced, American influenced, and European.  (Nasi Goreng, Black Bean Chili, Carbonara, Lamb Curry, pancakes, etc.)  I’m most impressed with the desserts, though, which come both at the beginning of the book disguised as “Baking” and at the end as “Desserts”.  Nothing Bill Granger makes is ever complicated, so the instructions are clear and easy.  If you need an all around cookbook for yourself or for a budding cook, this is a good starter which will produce great results, won’t discourage future exploration in the kitchen, and is quite nice to look at as well.  I do not like the semi-glossy pages though.

How I cook by Skye Gyngell (Quadrille Publishing 2010; photography by Jason Lowe) I was so intrigued by the cover of this book because it reminds me of one of my favorite books, The Clatter of Forks and Spoons by Richard Corrigan (which I previously reviewed here), I couldn’t resist picking it up. Inside of course is nothing like Corrigan’s book. Though this is also based on seasonality and easy preparation, it is more of a personal book about how Australian chef Skye Gyngell eats– what she prepares for herself at home. It is arranged by meal, and menu, so you don’t have to think about what to pair items with. This book would be quite useful for planning small and elegant dinner parties. The ingredients are all quite common, yet Skye manages to put together a refined collection of recipes, not at all the “comfort” type food I imagined when I first opened the book. Much like her previous two books, you might opt for only one of them, but not all three.

Canteen:  Great British Food by Cass Titcombe, Dominic Lake and Patrick Clayton Malone (Ebury Press 2010; photography by Angela Moore) Canteen is a restaurant with ‘flagship’ in Spitalfields (East London), and three more throughout the city.  The intro to the book says “Canteen is committed to providing honest food, nationally sourced, skillfully prepared and reasonably priced.”  I’ve never eaten there.  But I am fascinated by traditional British cuisine, or what we think of as British cuisine.  Though it was just published this year, the book looks exactly like its from the 1950s, cover and all.  I find that charming!  The recipes cover the typical bubble and squeak, scotch eggs, steak and kidney pies, treacle tart, steamed syrup pudding mixed in with more modern fare like roast tomato and goat’s cheese tart, skate with black butter, roast squash and fennel with spelt, and hazelnut, cherry, and white chocolate cookies.  Of course I will never ever touch the deviled kidneys on toast, but the shallot, thyme, and cheddar pie or the sausage rolls?  I’m in.  I haven’t been back to London since I got this book, but next time I go, I’ll check out Canteen and report back.

Leon:  Naturally Fast Food Book 2 by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent (Conran Octopus 2010; special photography Georgia Glynn Smith). I never thought I’d use the expression hot mess to describe a cookbook, but here it is: Leon 2.  I didn’t see Book 1 of Leon, but I think it looked exactly like this, too.  This edition is dedicated to meals you can cook in under twenty minutes from start to finish, and meals you can prepare in advance and reheat (my kind of cooking!).  It is a collage format inside, full of drawings, family photos, and unappealing food photos.  Really unappealing.  To quote a colleague of mine when he is exasperated, “Honestly!”  But if you can get past the headache inducing design of the book and focus almost entirely on the recipes, there’s great stuff hidden in here.  Winter Vegetable Herb Post Roast (no meat!), John’s Broccoli with garlic, cashew nuts, and chilli (red pepper), Rigas’s Lamb (slow roasted lamb with small macaroni), Lamb and Apricot balls (meatballs), Courgette soup (zucchini)…  Really, this book is like sifting through a flea market to uncover great treasure.  By the way, I understand that Leon is a brick and mortar food store of some sort in London, but I’ve never been.  I will put it on my list to check out next time I go.  I like the section of the book which includes recipes from Leon managers, but I needed a Dramamine to read the acknowledgements page.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean!!  This is the perfect book for a student or someone who has an innate curiosity for all different types of cookbooks.  Or someone who is looking for great quick recipes and cook ahead recipes.

Food From Plenty: Good food made from the plentiful, the seasonal, and the leftover by Diana Henry (2010 Mitchell Beazley; photography by Jonathan Lovekin) Diana Henry began working on this book before the recession hit, so it has come out on the tail end of already quite a few books on the theme of being more responsible with your food.  That’s not really why I bought it, but it’s one of the reasons I really like this book.  I like sensible recipes.  I love the “throw it all in a pan and roast it” or “heat olive oil and spices, shred the left over meat and brown it in a pan, then add the left over rice” type recipes because I think they have even greater flavors and they feel more…natural.  Diana Henry’s book is that simple, yet creative:  Spanish rice with pork and spinach; Lamb, beer, and black bean chilli, cherry and goat’s cheese-stuffed chicken, parsnip and smoked haddock soup, and there is dessert– laid back like sugar-crusted lemon loaf cake.  The chapters are divided by main ingredient– roasts and leftovers, vegetables, pulses, grains, soups, sweets, eggs, etc.  I love it, and the photography is sublime.  Someone, somewhere will probably hate me for saying it, but it reminds me of Nigel Slater’s cooking style, and definitely one ups Tamasin Day Lewis’s Supper for a Song.  This book would be nice for anyone who is interested in being inspired to make their own laid back dishes in the kitchen after trying a few recipes by someone else.