Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Dinner To Go: Academy Award Lasagna from Daniel

Photo courtesy Daniel Marlos, Feb. 27, 2011.
This afternoon I received a somewhat cryptic e-mail from my friend Daniel with the header:  "Sunday Dinner to Go:  Academy Awards Pot Luck Lasagna Sin Carne".  I can only assume this means that Daniel was invited to a potluck Academy Awards party and that he took homemade vegetarian lasagna.

Knowing Daniel, he made a delicious lasagna for the party and realized on his way out the door that I'd love to hear about it.  Not having enough time to write a full message about it, he must have hurriedly photographed both the ingredients and the recipe, and hoped I'd figure it out.

If only he'd photographed the lasagna BEFORE he covered it with aluminum foil...
Daniel's Lasagna sin Carne, Feb. 27, 2011.

Friday, February 25, 2011

My Year of Brethren Food: Orange Marmalade

My first attempt at making marmalade, Feb. 2011.
It's been several weeks since I attempted making orange marmalade and I'm still so exhausted from the experience that I haven't had the energy to sit down and write about it until now.

My first attempt was not a great success, but I did eventually end up with something edible.  Runny, but edible.  My friend Daniel is already in the middle of finishing off his second jar, so it can't be that bad.  If I tried to be objective about it, I would say that it tastes delicious, but it's texture leaves something to be desired.  It's just too drippy for my taste.  I think I may use the rest of it to make some kind of sauce for baked chicken.  Or even infuse a pound cake with it.  If anyone out there has recipes that call for marmalade, I'd love to hear about them.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm in the middle of a year-long project to make recipes using my great-grandmother's Brethren cookbook.  We also have a tree full of sour oranges in our backyard.  So I figured I should make marmalade using some version of a recipe from my great-grandmother's cookbook.  Her cookbook, which was the 1911 edition of the Inglenook Cookbook, had three recipes for orange marmalade and none of them was more than four sentences long.  Clearly, these were recipes for people who already know how to make marmalade.  Or at least know how to make jam or jelly.  Which I don't.

After realizing that this cookbook didn't contain enough information for me to actually make marmalade, I scoured my cookbook collection for ideas and did some online research.  I even consulted Jeff Ward, grandson of E. Waldo Ward, and current proprietor of E. Waldo Ward and Son Ranch in Sierra Madre, California.  Jeff Ward's grandfather became famous (and wealthy) making and supplying marmalade to several train lines in the western United States.  I figured that if Jeff Ward approved of a recipe, it must be pretty good.  I'll admit, it wasn't his family's secret recipe-- the one created by E. Waldo Ward himself-- but it looked good to me and I incorporated some of the ideas from it into my own recipe.  In the end, I relied on my most trusted source for all things food-related.  I called my mother.

After much consultation, we came up with a recipe we thought would work.  And I suspect that in different hands, this recipe might have worked.  Unfortunately for the oranges, I was in charge and I believe the failure was in the execution of the recipe.  I was so terrified that I would over-boil the marmalade that I suspect I didn't boil it long or hard enough.

I present the following recipe for educational purposes only.  I caution you against trying it and accept no responsibility if it goes wrong.  If you are an expert marmalade maker, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the recipe I pieced together from many reliable sources.

Weighing oranges.
Barely Orange Marmalade
by Susan Lutz



  • 6 large sour oranges and 2 lemons totaling 2 1/2 pounds
  • 2 1/2 quarts water (or 1 quart of water per pound of fruit juice/pulp)
  • 4 1/2 pounds of sugar (although I think I mistakenly added almost 5 pounds of sugar)


  • Peel oranges and lemons with a knife to remove peel.  Save pith and seeds.
  • Cut citrus peel into small strips about one-eighth of an inch long.
  • Juice the oranges and place in a large food-safe plastic container.
  • Wrap pith, seeds, and any remaining membranes in cheese cloth.
  • Add citrus peel, water, and cheesecloth wrapped bundle to your container of juice and let sit overnight.  
  • The next day, place mixture into a large, tall non-reactive pot and boil mixture until it has reduced by half.  (I think this is where I made my fatal mistake.)
  • When mixture has reduced by half, take off the heat and weigh it.  Add 1 pound of sugar for every pound of fruit (I added 4 1/2 pounds of sugar) and boil until mixture becomes thick.  (This never happened for me.)   Some of my recipes said that the marmalade should test it by placing a small spoonfull of marmalade on a glass plate and let it cool.  If it's thick when it's at room temperature, it's done.
When I realized my marmalade was never going to fully set, I was so frustrated that I yelled out from the kitchen, "I give up.  This isn't working!"  Within seconds, my 4 year-old called back, "Never give up!"  (Sometime I'll tell you about the potty-training song my daughter invented using this very line as the refrain.  But this is not the time to share that delightful bit of family trivia.)  Suffice it to say, I couldn't possibly give up after hearing her sweet words.  I kept going, even though I was worn-out and felt sure that my marmalade was doomed. 
Waiting for jars to cool.

I boiled my jars in hot water, soaked the lids and screw caps in hot water and poured my molten marmalade carefully into the jars using a wide-mouthed funnel my mother had lovingly sent me when I first made sweet pickles.  I popped a lid on top of each jar, tightened a cap down on each lid, and one by one turned each jar upside down to rest.  After about 10 minutes, I turned the jars right-side up and waited.  I even warned my stepson, who was staying home with the jars while I fled the scene, that if he heard "pinging" coming from the kitchen, he shouldn't worry.  All was right with my marmalade.  I said this almost as a joke because I was sure the canning process wouldn't work.  But just as I was about to go out the door, I heard the beautiful "PING!".  And I couldn't help smiling.  Maybe there was hope after all.

When I got home several hours later, all the jars had miraculously sealed.  I was delighted.  At least something had gone right.  When I turned a jar over, the marmalade even stayed where it was supposed to be-- in the bottom of the jar.  Unfortunately, the marmalade didn't stay as thick as I had hoped.  But it was good.  We ate it on toast for dinner that night.  And I was proud that I hadn't given up, even if the end result wasn't all I had hoped it would be.

I have a sneaky suspicion that my next orange-based project will be candied orange peel-- not Round Two of marmalade production.   I feel a little guilty about all the sour oranges going to waste on our tree. But who knows-- if I don't get around to it in the next couple of weeks, there's always next year.  

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Heirloom Foods: River Rocks and Farting Cabbage

Daniel's first sauerkraut, Feb. 2011.
We at the ESD offices have been enjoying watching Daniel Marlos make sauerkraut almost as much as we've enjoyed eating it.

In this second installment of Daniel's kraut-making process, I've decided to post a few photos and a brief video to show you how the sauerkraut is coming along.  In a few days, I'll be posting the full recipe.  (I must admit I'm holding off on posting the recipe until I can figure out how to write a disclaimer about avoiding botulism while making pickled foods.  And why you shouldn't blame me if you manage to make yourself sick.)

So while I work on that little problem, I thought I'd introduce you to two of the most interesting, and weirdest aspects of making sauerkraut-- the procurement of a cabbage stone and Farting Sauerkraut.

The Cabbage Stone
A cabbage stone is bascially a rock.  Well, not basically-- a cabbage stone IS a rock.  A rock that you collect from the source of your choice, clean thoroughly, and keep from year to year.  The rock is used to keep the cabbage weighed down in the crock so the cabbage can fester in it's own juices.
Daniel washes his newly acquired "cabbage stone".  Feb. 2011.
Contrary to popular opinion, you cannot purchase a cabbage stone at Macy's.  You must find one, buy one, or otherwise procure a stone that's large enough to weigh down the cabbage, but still small enough to fit into your crock.  Daniel got his from a recent ramble in the Los Angeles River.

Those of you familiar with the LA River know that it's a great place to collect rocks.  It also happens to be a place that Daniel has been visiting for over twenty years-- sometimes with me in tow-- so it's fitting that Daniel's cabbage stone comes from the LA River.  Having spent time wandering along the concrete banks and rocky bottom of the LA River, it's good to know that Daniel's rock (now cabbage stone) has been well-cleaned.  Beautiful as the LA River can be, it certainly has it's share of floating garbage, which is not an appetizing thought.  Because the rock/cabbage stone came from the LA River, I suspect it will get along well with Daniel's 10 gallon crock, which was once used to house fish collected from the LA River.  I hope this shared history between rock and crock will be the starting point for a very happy relationship for years to come.

Farting Sauerkraut
This phenomenon is new to me.  Sauerkraut farts when you press it down in the crock.  Or at least Daniel's does.  On the day I visited, Daniel was adding the last of 10 heads of cabbage to his crock and covering it with a plate that fit tightly down into the crock.  He'd started this batch a few days earlier so the cabbage had already expelled quite a bit of liquid into the crock.  As Daniel repeatedly pressed on the plate using all his body weight (he was in push-up position when he did it), the sauerkraut made hearty farting noises.  I assume it was the noise of excess air bubbling up from the murky depths, but I can't be sure.  I fear that this video doesn't do the sauerkraut justice.  If only I'd had a sound engineer on site...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Christine Jagolino Reports on Sichuan Private Kitchen

Christine Jagolino on a culinary adventure in Indonesia.
Hong Kong correspondent Christine Jagolino has just filed this fascinating report on her visit to a private kitchen in the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong.

Before talking to Christine, I'd read about private kitchens-- unlicensed restaurants with homestyle cooking-- but I didn't realize they were such a phenomenon.   In a place like Hong Kong, where  rent is sky-high and government regulations can be strangling, this kind of underground restaurant makes sense.  And of course, anything that's under the radar, so to speak, is infinitely more exciting.

For security reasons, there are no photos to accompany this report.

Thanks, Christine, for your take on the world of private kitchens in Hong Kong.  We eagerly anticipate your next report on cooking in Chengdu, one of three UNESCO Cities of Gastronomy.

Sichuan Private Kitchen
By Christine Jagolino
ESD Hong Kong Correspondent

I got together with my friends on Friday night for dinner at a Sichuan (also Szechwan) private kitchen in Wan Chai.  Private kitchens here are like speakeasys.  They’re hidden, not licensed, and found by word of mouth.  Private kitchens are easy to come by in Hong Kong, and they range in price, cuisine, ambience, size, and they will always be a unique dining experience.

This particular kitchen is located on the second floor of an office or apartment building, with no indication there’s anything special here, except for a string of fake chili peppers around the door.  The dining area holds as many people as can fit into the converted apartment.  Reservations need to be made ahead of time so enough food is available.

I’ve been to this place several times before, and always with a decent sized group.  The more the merrier and the more dishes we can devour.  We’ve celebrated Chinese New Year and going-away dinners here, and this particular dinner was a Christmas celebration.  The timing was perfect.  

This particular weekend friends were:
A.  Getting ready to go back home for the holidays.   
B.  Coming back home to HK for the holidays.

C.  Passing through HK on their way somewhere else for the holidays.

Hong Kong is a very transient town and it’s nice having everyone at one place at one time.

Our table is always like the U.N.  We have representatives from all over America, Canada, England, Vietnam, Singapore, China and Hong Kong.   These people are some of my closest friends and I consider them family.  We like to say that this particular private kitchen is where families are made.

Dishes are served starting from mild and gradually get spicier.  With a group, we get a little bit of everything.  Winter melon and a few other veggies, tofu, chicken, noodles, fish…  but the special guest of the evening is the mala pepper.  

The name of this Sichuanese peppercorn is taken from two Chinese characters: spicy and numbing.  The sensation is something my mother (who doesn’t eat spicy food) is still thinking about a year after visiting me in HK.  The only way to tame the intense heat is with beer.  Lots and lots and lots of beer.  And if you are worthy, the owner will challenge you to a chugging contest, and she will just about always win.

Sichuan is my favorite of the Chinese cuisine, and it is clearly not for the faint of heart.  Should you be brave enough to tackle this food adventure, be sure to wear dark clothing.  Chili oil gets everywhere!    

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Year of Brethren Food: The Great Meatloaf Disaster

When I started making meatloaf based on recipes from my great-grandmother's Brethren cookbook, I was already thinking about writing a blog post about how delicious my meatloaf was and how much  my family raved about it.  Instead, I am choosing to suppress the recipe (heaven forbid someone actually tried to make it!) and I'm sitting down to write about The Great Meatloaf Disaster.

My first attempt at making an "old-fashioned" meatloaf started out ok.  I make meatloaf three or four times a year and it's pretty simple.  I figured all I needed to do was to get the right ratio of wet and dry ingredients and not over-bake it.  Easier said than done.

I looked at five different recipes in my great-grandmother's Inglenook Cookbook and they had a lot of similarities-- ground beef, milk, onion, salt, pepper, bread crumbs.  One included thyme and another suggested using a piece of butter "the size of a walnut".  I decided to incorporate both of these ideas.

Riding high from a recent success with baked beans, I decided to use chili sauce instead of the ketchup or sliced tomatoes that several of the recipes called for.  In retrospect, this was clearly a mistake.

Moving on to the more crucial ingredients, I averaged out the amount of ground beef found in each recipe (2 pounds) and the number of eggs (2 seemed pretty standard).  Most of the cooks used a cup of milk.  Then I added salt, pepper, and onion, which I later realized I'd forgotten to sauté before adding them to the mix.

But things really started to go wrong with the breadcrumbs.  Some recipes called for up to a "large" cup of breadcrumbs.  Others suggested using crackers, as my grandmother always had.  I went with the breadcrumbs because that's what I had in my cabinet.  I used a standard cup, which didn't seem to be nearly enough.  Looking at the liquidly red mess in my mixing bowl, I cavalierly tossed in a generous handful with my "clean" hand and kept stirring the mixture with my "messy" hand.

Next I formed the mixture into a loaf in my grandmother's roasting pan (for good luck) and topped it off with the remains of my bottle of chili sauce (about a quarter cup).  I proudly photographed the raw meatloaf and popped it in the oven, already anticipating the delicious aroma that would soon waft out of my kitchen.
Meatloaf about to go into the oven, Feb. 2011.
I'm not sure when I realized that something was amiss.  It might have been when I saw the lump of unmixed breadcrumbs on one side of the loaf.  It might not have been until I started cutting into it and the slices started to break in half.  Following the advice of the fabulous Julia Child, who said "Never apologize!", I served it up and said nothing about my misgivings to my family.

It wasn't until I started serving the meatloaf that I realized I'd forgotten to take a "beauty shot" of my completed meatloaf.  I was horrified.  And frazzled.  And I had a sneaky suspicion that things were not as they should be.  But I persevered.  I took the meatloaf off the cutting board and plopped it back into the crusty roasting pan (another fatal mistake).  After taking a few blurry photos, I realized I didn't have enough daylight left in the kitchen to take a photograph without flash, so I carried the dried carcass to my daughters' room, which has a bright daylight balanced halogen bulb in the ceiling fixture.

I put a placemat on my daughters' play table and plopped the roasting pan down on top of it.  Then I ran back to the kitchen to get the camera and tripod.  By the time I returned, my daughter had surrounded my meatloaf with a collection of toys and just as I was about to yell at her to get that crap off my table, she waved her hands proudly in front of the display and proudly said, "Mommy, look!  I decorated it for you."

I took a deep breath and choked back my tears.  When I could speak in what I hoped was my usual tone of voice I said, "Thank you, sweetie.  It's beautiful."  I took a photograph and carried our dinner back into the kitchen.  My husband, who had just come home after a long day at the office, happily ate the meatloaf and thought it was "pretty good".  We even ate the leftovers the next day.
Ugly, overcooked meatloaf in the world's most beautiful surroundings, Feb. 2011.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Heirloom Foods: Homemade Sauerkraut and Kielbasa Sandwich

Sandwich of Daniel's homemade sauerkraut and kielbasa (not homemade) with mustard on rye, February 2011.
My friend Daniel is known for his great cooking and baking, but he's outdone himself with his latest pickling project-- homemade sauerkraut.  My grandmother used to make sauerkraut, but when I was a kid I never liked it.  Luckily, my love of pickled foods has grown over the years, and when I told Daniel that his sauerkraut reminded me of my grandmother's it was truly a compliment.
Crock full of kraut in Daniel's kitchen.

Daniel's sauerkraut and kielbasa sandwich was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted.  And I'm not usually a huge fan of sauerkraut.  I hate the sharp vinegar flavor you get from store-bought sauerkraut (and don't get me started on the metallic twang from the canned varieties).  Good homemade sauerkraut is hard to come by and I pretty much avoid it unless it comes from a reputable source.

Daniel's sauerkraut was something entirely different. We tasted it straight out of the crock, when it was still green and crunchy and it was very good.  Once he cooked it with the kielbasa, it was utterly transformed-- it became soft, silky and almost melted in my mouth.

Daniel is still in the midst of refining the recipe, but I hope he'll weigh in on his progress (and a recipe) as he works on Batch Two.  And I hope he'll be calling me to come taste-test it.
Kielbasa and homemade sauerkraut awaits in Daniel's kitchen, February 2011.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

World's Best Baked Beans? We'll see when my family gets home...

Today I made my first batch of homemade baked beans and they were pretty delicious if I do say so myself.  (It's early here, and nobody else in my family has tried them yet, but I couldn't resist writing this post before dinnertime.)
Baked beans in my grandmother's Guardian Ware pot, Feb. 10, 2011.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I'm in the middle of a year long project to cook from my great-grandmother's Inglenook Cookbook and I got some of the ideas for this recipe from that book.  Unfortunately, this cookbook was first printed in 1906 and it's contributors assumed that anyone reading the cookbook already knows how to cook.  I've been cooking for all my adult life, and I often cook without using a recipe, but I didn't grow up eating baked beans so this recipe took a bit of guesswork.

My mother is famous for her Senate Bean Soup, which is really more like a pot of beans with chunks of ham-- not really a soup at all-- so after I consulted the seven baked bean recipes described in the Inglenook Cookbook, I immediately called my mother for some advice.  After much consultation, here's the recipe we came up with.

Baked Beans for the Harried Housewife

This version of baked beans comes from a Virginia housewife in a California kitchen.  I mention this bit of personal information to explain why I used chunks of pre-cooked home-cured country ham in this recipe.

Don't worry if you don't have chunks of pre-cooked home-cured country ham in your freezer.  You can easily substitute a thick slice of pancetta cut into small cubes or even slices of thick-cut bacon.  I bet this recipe would even be good made without meat, although I love ham so much that I probably won't get around to trying that any time soon.

I've called this recipe Baked Beans for the Harried Housewife because I never seem to have time to soak the beans overnight and I was happy to discover that you don't have to.  It's much faster to bring the beans to a boil on the stove top and let them sit for an hour.  I also discovered that my beans cooked much faster than all seven of the original recipes suggested they would.  This is either because early 20th century cooks liked their beans really mushy or because boiling the beans first really speeds up the process.

This recipe calls for chili sauce, which may seem a little weird, but it was suggested by Sister Viola Mohler in her recipe for baked beans in the Inglenook cookbook.  I was suprised that chili sauce even existed in 1906, but there it was, so I decided to try it.  I love chili sauce and will find any excuse to include it.

My recipe also includes a small amount of baking soda because several recipes from the Inglenook Cookbook suggested it and an entire generation of Brethren cooks can't be wrong.  A little online research suggests that the baking soda is supposed to cut down on the potential for unwanted gas (in the eater, not the dish).  I'll let you know if it works after everybody tries them, but so far so good.

  • 1 pound Navy beans
  • 4 ounces pre-cooked country ham or salt pork (or bacon or pancetta)
  • 1/2 cup diced onion
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 4 tablespoons chili sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 5 cups of water (or enough water to cover beans in pot-- approximately 2 1/2 cups for each of two additions of water, but this will vary based on the size of your pot).   
Notes:  If country ham or salt pork is unavailable, you can substitute 8 slices of thick-cut bacon or 4 ounces of pancetta, approximately 1/4 inch thick.  Chop bacon or pancetta into small pieces and fry in a medium hot skillet until fat is rendered out of the meat.  Reserve rendered fat for possible addition later in the cooking process.

Beans halfway through cooking time.
  • Rinse and drain Navy beans and put in a 1-quart oven-safe sauce pot with lid or a small dutch oven.
  • Cover beans with approximately 2 1/2 cups of water and place on stovetop.  Heat beans until water is boiling.  
  • Turn off heat and let beans soak in hot water for one hour or until beans have softened slightly.  You will be able to bite through a bean, but it will still be crunchy and taste like grass.
  • Rinse beans and return to pot.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot, including enough water to cover the beans (approximately 2 1/2 cups.)
  • Stir all ingredients and place back on stovetop.  Bring to a boil and put into preheated 300 degree oven for a total of one and a half to two hours.  
  • One hour into the baking process, stir ingredients in pot.  Make sure the beans still have some liquid in the pan.  If beans have dried out (which is unlikely), add additional water.  Return pot to the oven and continue baking.
  • One hour into the cooking time, take the lid off the pan and check for seasoning.  If you've added country ham, you will probably not need any salt.  If you're using pancetta or bacon, you may want to add up to one teaspoon of salt at this point.  And if you're feeling really decadent, you might want to add a teaspoon or two of the rendered bacon fat.  
  • Stir beans and continue to bake for 30 minutes.  
  • After beans have cooked for a total of one and half hours, check again for doneness.  If beans still need additional cooking time, remove lid and continue cooking.  Add a bit more water if pan has dried out before beans reach desired texture.  Beans are done when soft, but not mushy.  
Close view of finished baked beans in pot, February, 2010.

Monday, February 7, 2011

FIREMAN FANTASY... AND REALITY or What Do Firemen Eat for Lunch?

Firemen eat salad.
Fireman fantasies usually involve hunky men without shirts... rippling muscles under yellow coats... and massive meals of chili and near-raw steaks.

I don't know what firemen usually eat, but on the day my daughter's class visited Station #31, the firefighters were having salad for lunch.

Our trip to the fire station was fascinating... though it ruined some myths for me.  I was excited to see that they still had a fireman's pole, but sadly, our guide destroyed my vision of hot firemen sliding down the pole on their way to the rescue.  He told us that in a REAL emergency he always takes the stairs because it's faster.  

It's not a sexy vision, but it's honest.  It shows that firefighters are smart, which is comforting (especially if your house is on fire.)  And as the rippling forearms in this photo show, firemen are still hot.  This guy could cook too!

Today's firefighters are also nice.

As the field trip was winding down, an emergency call suddenly came in.  The firefighters (both male and female) put on their gear and climbed up into their fire engine, while explaining to the kids that they didn't run or hurry, and they moved in a "calm and safe manner".   Engine #1 then roared dramatically out of the station to answer the call of duty.

My daughter and I stayed at the station for a few minutes to ask our guide a question... and we saw Engine #1 calmly driving back to the station.  It even stopped at a red light.

It took me a few minutes to realize that they must have faked the call, but that just made me love them all the more.  They know how to put on a good show!

Another benefit:  They told the children to clean up after themselves and make their beds-- just like the firefighters do.  The next day, for the first time in her life, my daughter made her bed without being asked to do it.

Sadly, it was in the evening after my husband had just turned down her sheets.  At least it was a step in the right direction.

Thanks to the brave men and women of Station #31, my fireman fantasy lives on... But now it includes a hunky man convincing my children to put away their toys and brush their teeth before they go to bed.

He also eats salad.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Megan Fizell

I find myself spending too much time on a newly discovered website-- a guilty pleasure when I'm supposed to be working.  It's called  Feasting on Art-- a blog devoted to art about food and making food inspired by art (and then photographing it).  The woman behind this blog is Megan Fizell-- art historian, photographer, writer, and cook.  

Photo courtesy Megan Fizell.
In each blog post, Megan presents a work of art (often a still life painting) and gives a brief biography of the artist and the historical background of the artwork.  She then offers up a recipe based on some aspect of the artwork, along with a a photograph of the completed dish. The featured recipe always incorporates at least one ingredient seen in the artwork, but sometimes her photograph of the completed dish is more about composition or another formal element of the work.  This was the case with the blog post that first got me hooked on her site--Gustavo Montoya-- Eggs Galette à la Mexicana.
My favorite part of her site is the Art Index, which shows thumbnail sized images of the art she discusses on her site.  I spend far too much time on her blog clicking on image after image to see what pops up.  Sometimes I find a new recipe I want to try.  Sometimes I revisit a favorite photograph or painting I'd forgotten about.  And sometimes I discover an old work of art that's new to me.  It's always an adventure.  

Thanks, Meg, for contributing this questionnaire, along with the beautiful photographs and your recipe for Ham, Gruyère, and Moutarde Palmiers that follows your response.  I'm always a sucker for any artwork or recipe that features ham!

The Official Eat Sunday Dinner Questionnaire

1.   What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
After a month of research on Julie Green's Last Supper series, I have been posing the same question in slightly different wording to my friends, 'what would you eat for your last supper?' When this question was set to me, I immediately retorted 'Oysters!' without a prior moment of thought. I indulge in oysters for every celebratory meal and savour the salty taste of the sea with each slippery bite. 
Photograph courtesy of Megan Fizell.

2.   What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
I really enjoy making soup. It is a slow dish, chopping a pile of vegetables that are set to simmer all afternoon on the stovetop. I make soup all year long with the flavors and ingredients changing depending upon the season. A particular favorite is chipotle chicken chowder, spicy and bright - ideal for the dark days of winter.

3.   Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/ it an inspiration to you?
I am influenced by artists who use or depict food in their work. Considering cooking in an artistic and aesthetic sense has defined the way I approach recipes and eating. From the idealized still lifes of mid-18th century American artists reminding me to relish in the simple beauty of fresh fruits and vegetables to the opulent banquet scenes of the Dutch, an age-old lesson in moderation. 

4.   What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
My favorite utensil is my hand blender, makes pureeing sauces and soups incredibly quick and easy sans the messy cleanup of a food processor. 

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
Photo courtesy Megan Fizzell.
This weekend I went to the Chinese New Year festival in Sydney. It was hard to decide between the slew of food stalls but the Indonesian vendor selling organic beef murtabak and mi goreng smelled too good to pass by, and luckily my nose didn't lead me astray. The following day after a visit to the White Rabbit Gallery, I had a lovely pot of red lychee tea that was beguilingly fragrant. 

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal the brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what did you eat?
In my family, Sunday afternoons were reserved to celebrate birthdays. The location of the meal would vary from week to week between the homes of grandparents and aunts and uncles. Often we would have a late lunch/early dinner and play card games after the cake, my favorite being my grandmother's ice cream roll. 

7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
Sadly I don't have a garden. I live in a flat in Sydney with a tiny windowsill on which I am trying to grow some chilli plants from seeds of a particularly tasty specimen. I am also cultivating a rosemary cutting in a glass jam jar. 

8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
Freshly caught lobster, simply prepared, on a beach with a cold beer.

9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
After reading M.F.K. Fisher's short essay 'Borderland', I would enjoy nothing more than for her to prepare her oranges toasted upon newspaper. Because her writing is so evocative, I will not even try to attempt to describe the dish myself,
"In the morning, in the soft sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them...separate each plump little pregnant crescent...Take yesterday's paper (when we were in Strasbourg L'Ami du Peuple was the best, because when it got hot the ink stayed on it) and spread it on the radiator...After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them...On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow on the sill. They are ready...I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell."
Photograph courtesy of Megan Fizell.
10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is __________."
Red wine.

Ham, Gruyère, and Moutarde Palmiers

By Megan Fizell
Edouard Manet, The Ham, 1875 oil on canvas, 13 x 16 cm.  The Glasgow Museum.

Palmiers are little cookies made of layers of puff pastry that are then folded to resemble palm leaves. The richness of the butter and cheese is perfectly contrasted by the vinegary tang of the seeded mustard. Wonderful as an appetizer or a light breakfast. Will keep 2-3 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator.  This recipe was adapted from a dish featured on the American Public Radio Show, The Splendid Table.

Yield: 4 servings
  • 1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons wholegrain mustard
  • 1 cup Gruyère cheese, grated
  • 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
  • 12 slices of ham or prosciutto, thinly sliced

  • Preheat the oven to 430 degrees fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.   NOTE:  The oven temp isn't a typo.  It's a metric conversion so it's an unusual temp in the fahrenheit system.
  • Roll out the sheet of puff pastry on a floured surface. Spread the mustard (or moutarde) over the pastry. Sprinkle over the Gruyère and Parmigiano-Reggiano being sure to evenly coat the entire surface. Arrange the ham or prosciutto in a single layer (you may have to cut to fit).
  • Cut the pastry in half and starting with the short sides, roll each end to the centre turning the pastry into a double scroll. Wet the pastry so the two rolls stick together. Wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.
  • Slice each roll into 12  individual palmiers, each about 1-inch thick, and arrange on the baking sheet with 1/2 to 1 inch of space between each palmier. Bake until golden, around 10 to 12 minutes. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Lynn Chen

In the early days of my television career, I was a producer who traveled all over the world to interview on-camera experts for various documentaries.  One day I'd interview a Voodoo Priestess.  The next day I'd drink margaritas with Shirley Corriher, world-renowned food scientist and author of the James Beard award-winning cookbook BakeWise.  I loved my job because it was a great way to meet smart people with interesting careers and to have an excuse to ask them lots of personal questions.  I was promoted out of that job over ten years ago and I still miss it.  I invented this blog-- and the Sunday dinner questionnaire-- to have an excuse to continue to meet smart, interesting people with great jobs.  And to talk with them about the food they eat.  
Photo courtesy Lynn Chen.

I met Lynn through this blog, and I asked her to contribute a Sunday dinner questionnaire because I wanted to know more about her life and her complex relationship with food.  Lynn is a gorgeous woman (see photo) with an enviable career as a  successful working actress in Hollywood (she's best known for her role in White on Rice).  She's also paid the price for that career and she tells her compelling story on her blog The Actor's Diet.  In it she describes her journey as an actress struggling with an eating disorder and her quest to make healthy eating choices on a  daily basis.  I started reading her blog because I was curious to hear her story, but I continue to read it because it's full of easy recipes and good local resources, like the BVSLA (a guide to the "Best Vegetarian Sandwiches in Los Angeles").  It's a fun read, especially for anyone who wants an insider's view of what actors in Los Angeles REALLY eat.  (She has an entire page dedicated to "Other Actor's Diets" as well.) 

Thanks, Lynn, for your response!  I'm looking forward to trying out the recipe below for "Erik E." Strata.   (See recipe following this questionnaire.)

Eat Sunday Dinner Questionnaire

1.     What is your favorite food to eat?  
Thanksgiving.  (Is that too general?)  Turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, etc.  When it’s all on one bun, like Capriotti’s “The Bobbie” sandwich, I am in heaven. 

2.   What is your favorite food to cook?  
One pot meals like soups, stews, and pastas – only vegetarian dishes, though, because I’m married to a vegetarian and don’t know how to cook meat.  I might poison you. 

3.   Who or what is your greatest culinary influence? Why is he/she/it an inspiration to you?  
My mother will kill me for this, but Rachael Ray.  I started watching her in my mid-twenties, when I was beginning to use my kitchen, and she has taught me everything I know – how to chop an onion, make a roux – it’s probably also why I only cook meals that take less than 30 minutes and don’t bake.

4.   What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?  
Tongs!  Keep those hands clean and burn-free!

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?  
Friday night: Pink Pasta (orzo with beets and other veggies). Saturday night: Japanese skewers (chicken, shitakes, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini and parsnips) with chicken rice porridge.  On Sunday I had a late afternoon “brunch” of pizza and salad so I just sipped on miso soup with asparagus for dinner.

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  
I can’t remember Sunday dinners (though I’m sure we had them) but I remember weekly Sunday breakfasts with my parents and brother.  I almost always made pancakes or omelets.  Sometimes we would go to McDonald’s as a special “treat.”

7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?  
For a TV pilot I was shooting with a friend, she had a gardening professional set up a pot of tomatoes to grow on my front porch.  I produced one ugly (and rather gross tasting) heirloom tomato after months of watering it religiously.  I have since turned it into an herb garden, and use it about once every few months.  I neglect it.  I am notorious for having a black thumb.  Please do not trust me with plants. 

8.   What is your ultimate food fantasy?  
Did you see “Spain - On the Road Again,” the Gwyneth Paltrow/Mario Batali/Mark Bittman/Claudio Bassols road trip show on PBS?  That’s it.  Getting paid to travel Europe with foodies and eat amazing food?  Cooking with amazing chefs?  Having Michael Stipe randomly show up in the midst of it all?  Please please please sign me up. 

9.   If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be? 
Nigella Lawson.  I so want to be one of those people she feeds in each of her episodes, or I would happily scarf down the leftovers, as she does, in front of the fridge at midnight.  The woman can cook, bake, and converse.  I could watch her braise an old boot and be enraptured.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is __________." 
Satisfaction.  Whether that’s taste, or the company, or feeling like you got a good deal.

Erik E. Strata
by Lynn Chen
(named after the actor from “Chips”), which is essentially just a…

Spinach, Onion, and Cheese Strata (serves 6-8)
Erik E. Strata by Lynn Chen.  Photo courtesy of Lynn Chen.

  • 12 pieces of sandwich bread, chopped
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheese
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 6 handfuls organic baby spinach
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • Olive oil
  • sea salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a 3 quart Pyrex with veggie oil and cover with bread. Sautee the onions and garlic til brown in oil, adding spinach til wilted and seasoning each with S + P. Top the first layer of bread with the spinach mixture, the cheese, and cover with the remaining bread.

Whisk together eggs, milk, and 1 tsp. salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Pour over everything, cover, and let sit in the fridge for at least an hour (you can do this overnight too).

Bake (uncovered) for 45 minutes to an hour, til a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.