SPRING ROLLS on a SPRING DAY

March is a wild month. It’s the beginning of Spring in the Southwest, but Winter still occasionally shows its teeth, bringing low temperatures, freezing rain, snow and nasty winds.   It’s enough to make a tropical creature sob.    This past Saturday I fought back,  ignoring the cloudy skies, the intermittent rain and the 25mph winds…  I went ahead and brought a burst of Spring air into the house.

VIETNAMESE-STYLE SPRING ROLLS
(from the Bewitching Kitchen)

4 rice paper rounds
1 oz dry bean threads or rice vermicelli
cooked shrimp, cut in half lengthwise
carrots, cut in long julienne strips
cucumbers, cut in long matchstick pieces
lettuce, cut in strips
cilantro leaves

for dipping sauce
6 Tbs soy sauce
2 Tbs water
2 Tbs rice wine vinegar
2 Tbs brown sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp grated fresh ginger

Cut the vegetables, cook the shrimp,  and have everything ready to use on your kitchen counter. Prepare the dipping sauce by mixing well all its ingredients.

Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package (they vary according to type). Rinse them in cold water and set aside (you can add a tiny bit of sesame oil or olive oil to prevent them from sticking, but it’s not absolutely necessary if you rinse them well).

Fill a bowl large enough to hold the rice paper with very warm water. Open a damp cloth over your work surface. Soak the rice paper in the warm water until it is soft and pliable. Carefully lift it and place it over the damp cloth. Line your ingredients, starting with the cut shrimp, then the noodles, veggies, herbs. Add 1/2 tsp of dipping sauce (or just a few sprinkles of soy sauce) to the filling, and roll the paper around them. Repeat with the remaining rice papers. To serve, cut each roll at an angle and serve with a small bowl of dipping sauce.

Think about birds chirping, flowers blooming, and ENJOY!


to print the recipe, click here


Comments: What I love about these rolls is that you can improvise and use lots of different things in the filling.  Granted, this practice might compromise their authenticity, but unless you’re having a Vietnamese guest for lunch, no harm done.   Keep in mind that you can have too much of a good thing: avoid using 6 different veggies, two types of meat, 5 herbs, and a smear of peanut butter inside.  😉 These rolls are supposed to be delicate, fresh, and light.   Perfect for the warm weather that is certainly peeking at us  (fingers crossed).

Click here for a quick tutorial on how to prepare them (plus a cool song in the background!)…

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PORK TENDERLOIN and BLUE CHEESE

…. so Happy Together!

Here’s a great combination, in a recipe from Bauer’s Secrets of Success, a cookbook quite popular in this bewitched place

GRILLED PORK MEDALLIONS with BLUE CHEESE SAUCE
(cookbook Secrets of Success, original recipe from chef Ruggero Gadaldi)

1 qt water
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup pickling spices
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 tsp kosher salt
2 pork tenderloins
6 large skewers (metal or bamboo)
olive oil

for sauce:
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
salt and pepper

Make the brine for the pork by bringing the water to a boil, adding the brown sugar, spices, vinegar, carrot, celery, onion, and salt. Simmer gently for 20 minutes, allow it to cool to room temperature. Cut each tenderloin in 10 medallions, and submerge the pieces in the brine (you can use a plastic bag). Refrigerate from 4 hours to overnight.

Turn your grill on high, remove the pieces of pork from the brine and pat dry. Thread the pieces onto skewers (if using wood skewers, allow them to soak in water for several hours to prevent burning). Season lightly with salt and pepper and brush the meat with a little olive oil. Grill for about 5 minutes per side, until medium-cooked.

Make the sauce by pouring the cream in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat until it starts to thicken (5-10 minutes), add the gorgonzola cheese, and stir until dissolved.

Serve alongside soft-cooked polenta.

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

Comments: This is a perfect recipe for weeknights, as the pork can brine during  the day.  I normally prepare the brining component  in the evening, and submerge the tenderloin early next morning, before leaving for work.   The brine does two great things for the meat:  it imparts a subtle sweet flavor, and it promotes browning on the grill, thanks to its sugar content. The gorgonzola sauce couldn’t be easier to prepare;  it comes together in minutes.  In his restaurant, chef Gadaldi’s serves the medallions alongside soft-cooked polenta.  I did the same, but also included broccoli.  It was  nice dinner in less than 30 minutes (and I’m not even Rachael Ray…  ;-)).

(if prepared without the polenta, this meal is appropriate for people on low-carb diets)

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COTTAGE LOAF and YEASTY DOGS

A couple of years ago, as I started regularly baking bread, a dear English friend of ours asked if I’d ever heard of “cottage loaf.”  I had not.   He explained that it was a bread he enjoyed as he grew up, that was baked in a special shape: two loaves together, the smaller one sitting happily on top of a larger one.   It had a soft crumb, perfect for indulgences with butter, jam, or fruit preserves.

Listening to him, eyes glowing with his childhood memories, I couldn’t help but set off on a mission to find the recipe.   None of my bread books helped, and  I posed questions in bread baking forums, but no one knew exactly what dough and what shaping were behind the elusive “cottage loaf”.   After a while I gave up hope, until last week I was thrilled to receive a comment from Zeb, who invited me to join a group of bakers to make – ready for this? –  cottage bread (!!!!).   As we say in Brazil, “… it was like asking a monkey if he wanted  some bananas”.   😉

Without further ado,  I share my first attempt at  this  traditional English bread.


COTTAGE LOAF

(adapted from Celia’s blog; dough recipe from Peter Reinhart’s Pain de Campagne)

Preferment
140g all purpose flour
140g bread flour
2/4 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp instant yeast
170g water

Mix the two kinds of flour, salt, and yeast in a bowl. Add the water, mix briefly and let it rest for 10 minutes. Knead the dough briefly, allow it to rise for 1 hour at room temperature, then stick it in the fridge overnight.

Final dough:
All the preferment
225g bread flour
45g rye flour
3/4 tsp sea salt
1 tsp instant yeast
170g water, at room temperature

Remove the preferment from the fridge 1 hour before making the dough, cutting it into pieces to speed up warming up to room temperature. Place in a large bowl. Cut it into pieces with a knife or pastry cutter, and place them in a large mixing bowl.

Add the water and yeast, and stir together, then add the flours and salt. Combine everything into a shaggy mass, allow it to sit for 20 minutes undisturbed. Let the dough rise for 90 minutes, folding the dough at 20 and 45 minutes. Dough should rise not more than double its original size.

Weigh the dough (it should be around 900g), divide in two pieces (600g and 300g each), form each piece into a tight round. Allow them to sit for 15 minutes at room temperature, then coat the large ball with a little olive oil, cut a cross on top. Cut a cross on the bottom part of the smaller ball, and place it on top of the large one, like in this photo.

Now insert your finger or chopsticks in the center of the round, going almost all the way to the bottom, opening the whole outwards slightly to join both loaves. Allow them to rise for 10-15 minutes more before baking.

Slash the dough all around (which I forgot to do), cutting through both levels. Place the bread in a the oven (430F), cover it with an inverted roasting pan moist with hot water, bake it for 30 minutes, uncover and allow it to bake for another 15 minutes (if top layer is browning too much, protect it with aluminum foil). If you don’t have a roasting pan large enough to cover the dough, follow the baking method explained here.

Allow to completely cool on a rack before slicing through.

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

Comments: One of the members of this bake-off group (Joanna), had great results starting the bread in a cold oven, turning it on just when the bread went in. If anyone is interested, drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch with her for specifics. The idea is to prevent over-rising of the top layer, which can pose problems…

Having made Reinhart’s Pain de Campagne for the BBA Challenge, I knew we’d love the taste of this bread, but the shaping seemed tricky.   No problems, though. Well, at least not with the bread itself. But, as I was putting my large container of instant yeast back in the freezer, it slipped from my hand, and in surreal slow-motion fashion,  I saw the lid flying in one direction, and the bottle slowly turning upside down in mid-air during its descent to the floor, spilling  yeast everywhere, faster than wildfire.   Of course, our almost-deaf dalmatian went at the yeast with a passion, and my hysterical screaming to stop him only alerted our Jack Russell to join the (microbiological) feast.   I’m happy to inform that yeast is not harmful to dogs.

Notes to self:
1. place an order at King Arthur’s Flour for instant yeast. ASAP.

2. bake a loaf of Cottage Bread for our friend. ASAP. 😉

I am submitting this post to Susan’s Yeastspotting!

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SUN-DRIED TOMATO AND FETA CHEESE TORTE

I first made this torte in 2001, for a large cocktail party to celebrate  my beloved’s Birthday.  We’d  never hosted quite so many people  (perhaps 60),   and this layered appetizer was one of the highlights of that memorable night.   The recipe came  from  Chiqui, a caterer from New Orleans, whom I “net-met” many years ago.    I hope you’ll consider it for your next dinner party, or for a potluck.  I recently made it again for another birthday party, so I might have to start calling it “Birthday Torte”.   😉

FETA CHEESE TORTE
(adapted from Chiqui)

1/2 cup slivered pine nuts, toasted (I substituted slivered almonds)
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil
1/2  garlic head, roasted
8 ounces feta cheese
1/2 stick unsalted butter
8 ounces cream cheese
1 tsp white pepper, ground
2 Tbs vermouth
1/2 cup arugula pesto (or regular basil pesto, preferably homemade)

Prepare the ingredients for all layers:  toast the nuts in a dry skillet or in the oven, being careful not to burn them.  Coarsely chop the sun-dried tomatoes, drain of most of their oil, and mix them with 1/2  of the roasted garlic.  Mix the feta cheese at room temperature with the butter, cream cheese, pepper, vermouth, and the remaining roasted garlic.  Add to the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth and fluffy.  Adjust seasoning if necessary. If using commercial pesto, drain it to reduce the amount of oil.  If using homemade, make it with less oil than the recipe calls for.

Line the mold of your choice with plastic wrap, leaving 6 inches overhang on all sides.
First layer:   toasted nuts.
Second layer: Sun-dried tomato mixture.
Third layer: Half the cheese mixture. Spread it gently over the tomatoes.
Fourth layer:  Pesto sauce.
Fifth and final layer: Remaining cheese mixture.   Spoon gently, and smooth the surface well.

Cover it with the plastic wrap, and place in the fridge for at least 4 hours, overnight is best.  Unwrap it, invert the torte on a serving dish.  Serve with crackers of your choice.

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

Comments: You can make this layered torte in any kind of container.  Sometimes I prepare it in mini-loaf pans:  the full recipe is enough for two completely full mini-loaves, or three smaller (shorter) ones.   For a Valentine’s dinner, a heart-shaped container sounds interesting, but keep in mind that the dish is rich, so the full recipe is way too much for two people.

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(receita em portugues na proxima pagina)

Continue reading

TAILLEVENT

For some people Paris means fashion: clothes, shoes, perfumes, jewelry and make-up. But me, I couldn’t care less if Louis Vuitton’s gold-encrusted store disappeared from the the planet, and along with it all the $2000 handbags and $800 belts. On the other hand, I still mourn the closing of Bistrot du Papa, a simple restaurant in the 7th arrondissement, that served the best quiche Lorraine we ever tasted. Excuse me while I wipe away some tears.

For a long time we contemplated dining at Taillevent, considered by some the best restaurant in France. Indeed, a place that held a three-star rating for 37 years must be doing things right. This dream stayed unfulfilled for many years, until our 10th wedding anniversary provided the extra push to indulge ourselves. We decided on lunch at Taillevent, rather than dinner, and it met our highest expectations!

Entering some of the upscale restaurants (Tour d’Argent comes to mind… ) is intimidating and overwhelming, almost like stepping – uninvited – into a Hollywood movie. Their exquisitely opulent surroundings transform the initial experience into a dream-like blur that’s difficult to even completely remember. In this respect the sophisticated but inviting ambiance of Taillevent was a pleasant surprise. Its beautifully organized table settings, with a modern theme, were overseen by smartly-dressed waiters who were always available, but never intrusive.

After we made our choices among the lunch menu options, the waiter brought a small lentil soup as an amuse-bouche. Calling it just a lentil soup, however, is an understatement. The texture of the lentil component was between that of a cream soup and a mousse. Served cold, it surrounded an icy cream in the central interior, and contained a small “chip” of Serrano ham floating on top. Its inspiration undoubtedly came from the classic ham and lentil soup, and we both loved the chef’s transformations of this dish! The smokiness of the ham did not overpower the lentils, and the cream component provided a contrast of both flavor and temperature. It was a few spoonfuls of perfection.
(click on the photos to enlarge them)

For his first dish, my husband chose a cream of broccoli soup. The waiter served the bowl empty, except for seven small ravioli inside, and then spooned the (amazingly green) hot cream of broccoli on top. It was light but substantial: the creamy cheese within the ravioli filled the soup with satisfying flavor. I often think of toppings on cream soups, but now I’ll definitely consider hidden surprises at the bottom instead, and pouring the soup at the table made it even more interesting.

For my first dish, I took a chance and went for the fish (rouget), served with a cumin-seasoned eggplant crisp and black olive tapenade. I eat almost everything, but I’m challenged by strong-tasting fish. In this case, though, my risk paid off with what I’m tempted to say was the best dish I’ve ever had. The fish was prepared with its skin on; the meat was flaky, tender and flavorful, but without a hint of ‘fishiness.’ The eggplant crisp and the olive tapenade lent flavor, but were not so pungent as to distract from the main component, the fish. I can’t explain how the eggplant crisp was made – it was not a thin slice of eggplant, but perhaps it was a thin-spread puree that was dried and baked. Maybe Carol from Alinea at Home knows how to prepare it. The plate was embellished with saucy decorations of parsley and mustard coulis.
(click on photo for larger version)

My husband’s main dish was a roasted duck breast, with hydromel and minced dragees (yes, its a type of candy).  The dish was served with a spinach puree, that was, unbelievably, as good as the duck. It was a main dish that blew our gastronomic minds… It’s not new to pair duck with sweets, whether it is oranges, prunes, honey or maple syrup, but the fine dust of candy and hydromel was an eye-opener. I am not sure exactly how the duck meat was prepared, it may have been seared before roasting. The spinach puree was simply outstanding. I detected some nutmeg, without a trace of bitterness in the vegetable. Again, the serving was decorated by spinach crisps, perhaps prepared in the same fashion as the eggplant crisp described above.

My main dish was a beef filet with soy glaze and caramelized root vegetables. The meat was delicious, and the veggies beneath were perhaps even better: carrots, parsnips, turnips, and a perfectly roasted chestnut.

After the main dishes came a cheese course, in this case brie studded with raisins in a creamy middle layer, served with fine slices of Honey Crisp and Granny Smith apples, and a light “angel hair” of celery and finely minced chives. A smaller portion of cheese would have satisfied me, but sometimes in life sacrifices must be made. 😉
(click on photo for larger version)

Dessert awaited us. My husband chose a “sable aux deux chocolats”. Dark and white chocolate mousse/cream sandwiched between a lace cookie on top and a chocolate cookie below, surrounded by touches of caramel on the plate. Decadent. Luscious. Sexy.

My dessert was a rhubarb crisp. I’d never experienced rhubarb before, and I’ve been curious about it for a long time. This was my chance, and I wouldn’t let it pass, even if my beloved twists his nose at rhubarb. Friends, I’ve eaten many desserts in my lifetime, but this rhubarb crisp enters my Desserts Hall of Fame. In the picture you’ll see some things on the plate that resemble small specks, perhaps carelessly left by the cook in charge. No, those are little pieces of a sweet ribbon, thin as a sheet of paper, that surrounded the rhubarb mousse, sort of enclosing the two crisps as a package. I wish I knew the preparation. The rhubarb mousse had lemon curd beside it, and everything was topped with a honey sorbet. I can’t master enough adjectives in any language to sufficiently praise this dish; let it suffice to say that even my husband enjoyed it, rhubarb and all… 😉

(click on photo to enlarge it)

We’ve dined in several of the great restaurants of Paris, but Taillevent immediately climbed to the top position, as my favorite.

The restaurant has been managed by the same family since its opening in 1946. Jean-Claude Vrinat was responsible for the three-star rating it obtained in 1973, and for managing it for three decades, even as its many brilliant chefs came and went. He passed away in 2008, and his daughter, Valerie Vrinat, now manages the restaurant, with Alain Soliveres as Head Chef since 2002.

Additional note: I asked for permission to take photos and blog them, and the staff was absolutely wonderful about it.

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BONJOUR!

Breakfast…. comme il faut!

Yes, one day I will have to master croissants and pain au chocolat from scratch… but for the time being, no need to worry about it…

(note to self: never ever compose a blog in less than 45 seconds, or you risk a huge typo right on the title! Blogging is hard when you are away from home 😉

PARIS, JE t’AIME…

When we finally took off for Paris our Boeing 777, the biggest and most comfortable of the jumbo jets, didn’t even notice the heavy rain and overcast enveloping Washington DC. And the happy couple it was transporting to the place they love so much didn’t’ mind the foul weather either. Clouds and rain, after all, are the norm in Parisian winter months, so we were ready for it. But, the initial day of such trips is the most difficult: an early morning arrival after a night on the plane with only a few hours of sleep, followed by the huge but requisite struggle to defeat jet lag. To reset our circadian clocks to the new schedule we walked outside as much as possible, and only saw the inside of our hotel room after night fell.

Having lived in Paris for several years we don’t visit many museums or tourist hot spots. “… Been there, done that,” from the Tour Eiffel to La Defense, from Montmartre to the Louvre, from Musee d’Orsay to Musee Salvador Dali, from cemetiere Pere Lachaise to the quartier Latin … Instead, what we love about Paris are the neighborhoods we used to call home. As we turn each corner we pass by each of our favorite cafes, brasseries, and boulangeries. We enjoy repeating our weekly Saturday afternoon walks, and that’s exactly what we did again yesterday… we departed our hotel close to Ecole Militaire and walked and walked, and walked some more….

We stopped at La Grande Epicerie de Paris, where I bought some “pimente d’espelette,” we strolled up rue de Rennes , then turned down to boulevard Montparnasse. We walked and walked some more, stood at the corner of Boulevards St Michel and St Germain, the gateway to Notre Dame, now so beautiful after its recent cleaning, and continued down to the cafe Les Deux Magots, which brings memories of dining outside at countless cafes throughout Paris, savoring the views of people passing by. Yesterday it was 40 F (3 C), but all the seats outside were filled by people from all over the world, each one living their own private love affair with Paris.

What’s for dinner? It was a simple meal at Le Bosquet, a classic brasserie two blocks from our hotel. The same waiter from several years ago handed us a menu that was almost unchanged. Why change oysters, confit de canard, and tarte Tatin? 😉

On a side note – If you haven’t seen the film Paris, Je t’Aime, I urge you to do so – it is a series of short stories by different directors, filmed in different Parisian neighborhoods. One of our favorites is the final vignette, the narrative (in broken, yet adorable French) of a lonely, middle-aged American woman who, after studying French for a few years, finally visits Paris for the first time in her life. Beautiful, touching, and a declaration of love for one of the most amazing cities in the world.

I feel the same way. It’s so nice to see it all again!

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