Friday, July 31, 2009

National Cheesecake Day

One of the great pleasures in life is indulging someone who appreciates it. That's why my niece and I get along so well. I indulge her. She appreciates it.

Most of the time.

We had an unexpected day to ourselves yesterday, as my kids were both otherwise engaged. With my astute powers of observation*, I had gleaned that she had a special fondness for cheesecake. It was a perfect opportunity to put my painstakingly honed recipe** to work and earn some major Auntie points at the same time.

Me: So, I think we should make a cheesecake for dessert tonight.
Her: (jumping up and down) Auntie Shar! Can I help? Can I? I love cheesecake!
Me: Of course you can.
Her: Do you have graham crackers, Auntie Shar? I like the kind with the graham cracker crust. From Sam's Club. And it has cream on top. Is it that kind?
Me: Well, I think I might be out of graham crackers. I was thinking about maybe using animal crackers*** instead. What do you think?
Her: (mouth literally dropped completely open with awe at the thought) You can do that?

You bet we can. We get out the stuff and get to work.

Me: Guess what we need to add after the animal crackers? Sugar!
Her: (whispering, because she is almost paralyzed with happiness about how this is working out) Can I do that part?
Me: Of course.

She taste tests the crust. Two thumbs up. HUGE smile.

I get out the mixer and announce that we are going to make the cheesecake part now. She's up on the stool, dangling my keys over the bowl.

Me: I said CHEESEcake, not KEYS cake!
We howl with laughter for a good 10 minutes over this one. I am, by far, the coolest aunt on the planet.

She taste tests the filling. Loves it. I pass her the beater, the bowl and the spatula for good measure. Her mom's not home, and I'm in charge, so it's totally fine. Plus at least half of it is on her fingers and her face anyway.

Her: Auntie Shar, how much pieces of cheesecake can I have?
Me: It's up to your Mommy****.
Her: My Mommy said I can have between 6 and 7 pieces. That's what I get to have in Michigan.
Me: Wow. That seems like a lot of pieces.
Her: It's BETWEEN 6 and 7, so it's not that much.

We pop it in the oven. Then her parents come home to take her out house hunting with them.

Her: Mommy, we can't go on the outing because the cheesecake is not done and I'm the taste tester.
Her mom: Sweetie, you can't taste test the cheesecake right away. You have to wait.
Her: Do we have to wait all the 8 hours, Mommy?
Her mom: (Seeing my puzzlement over this exact wait time expectation) No, this cheesecake is not frozen like the one at Sam's Club.
Me: We get to eat this one today, right after dinner, for our dessert.


Her: Mommy, can I have my dinner now? I'll eat some chicken if you want.

The rest of the day goes by in a blur. She patiently waits for the sky to grow dark. She eats a whole carrot without complaint. She cleans up all the meat they put on her plate. She gets her jammies on. It's agony waiting, but she does it. At last, I unmold the cake with a flourish and set it on the counter in front of her. Cutting carefully, we present her with the first slice as the rest of the crowd waits its turn.

She looks concerned. She takes a tentative forkful.

Her: I don't care for this. Can I have a different dessert, Mommy?

My sister, however, has seconds. That's why we get along so well. I indulge her. She appreciates it.

National Cheesecake Day Cheesecake*****

For Crust:

Heaping 2 c. of hard, crisp cookies (gingersnaps are my favorites, but you can use animal crackers, chocolate wafers, cinnamon grahams, or whatever you like)
1/4 c. sugar
extra spices (optional, but helpful if your cookies are plain graham crackers)
5 Tbs. butter, melted

For Filling:

2 lbs. (4 8 oz. packages) cream cheese, softened
1 1/4 c. sugar
3 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
dash of almond extract
1 Tbs. heavy cream

Use a food processor to make your cookie crumbs by processing the cookies until they are finely and uniformly ground up. You should get about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 c. of crumbs out of this. Process in the sugar and spices, if you are using any, then add the melted butter. The mixture should hold loosely together in clumps when you press on it. Press the mixture into the bottom and an inch and a half or so up the sides of a 10 inch springform pan. Refrigerate while you make the filling, about 20 minutes. If you're a super fast filling maker, put the crust in the freezer instead.

Preheat oven to 350.

For the filling, using an electric mixer, blend the cream cheese and the sugar together until light and fluffy. Blend in the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the extracts and the cream, and blend until the mixture is completely smooth. Pour into the prepared crust, then bake for 40 minutes. Turn off the oven, open up the oven door and leave in for another 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until ready to serve, at least 3 hours or overnight.

* She ordered nothing else for dessert the whole time we were in Vegas. In what should probably have been a clue to me, she always had one bite, then my sister and I usually split the rest.
** My sister is a cheesecake fanatic from way back. Let's just say this addiction is definitely genetic. I have literally pored over and tested recipes from about a dozen cookbooks to come up with this one in order to even begin to approach her high standards.
*** Degree of difficulty here is zero. She's crazy for animal crackers, and I know it.
**** Like hell it's up to her mom. My house, my rules. However, I won't invoke this clause unless her mom makes a bad decision.
***** According to The Cheesecake Factory, July 30 is National Cheesecake Day. I may not be quite as cool as I thought, but you have to admit my timing is just uncanny!

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade - Episode 2

Did you ever notice that while you are right in the middle of eating one meal, you almost always start taking about eating something else? It can be something you ate last week, or when you were a kid, or had while you were on that road trip that was otherwise completely forgettable. Or, it can be a wistful or lustful (depending on the meal) description of some anticipated dining experience in the future. In our case, it was a combination of both.

FG1: (Biting into taco) I was at the Farmer's Market last week and had the best Po' Boy sandwich.
FG2: (Licking sauce off her fingers) Really? I love a good Po' Boy. Was it oyster? Those are the best.
FG3: (Reaching for quesadilla) I loved eating in New Orleans. The food there is amazing.
FG1: (Mouth full) Mmm hmm. Couldn agree wiff you mo! Wuv it.
FG2: (Getting last bit of sauce) The beignets and the chicory coffee! I'm having a craving just thinking about it. (Opens up burrito as she says this)
FG1: (Picking up her share of the burrito) They have those at the place in the Farmer's Market!
FG3: (Polishing off the last short rib taco) We have to go there.
FG2: (Swigs Diet Coke and sits back contentedly) Definitely. I'm in!
FG1 and FG3: (Also swigging) Done!

Episode 2: So So Gumbo

And this is how we found ourselves meeting up a week or so later at The Gumbo Pot, one of the better known and well regarded* spots in the market. Our membership had expanded by one with the addition of my sister, and we eagerly perused the menu.

I will confess that I eat here pretty often, and I always order the same thing: An Andouille sausage po' boy. The sausage is peppery, juicy, sliced in half, grilled to perfection, then nestled in a huge roll with a healthy smear of lovely mayonnaise, cool crisp lettuce and a couple of tomatoes. Given the size of the bun, I almost always pile all the meat onto one half and the whole thing comes right into balance. I had this sandwich the first time I ate at the Gumbo Pot, and I've never even bothered to order anything else. Today was the day.

Between us, the table was soon loaded with red beans and rice, Gumbo Ya Ya, shrimp po'boys, corn muffins, sweet potato slaw, jicama salad, crab cakes and my sausage sandwich, of course. The anticipation was palpable.

FG4: (after tasting the gumbo) It's OK. Not great, but OK. Ours is better.**
FG2: (after biting into her shrimp sandwich, wrinkling her nose, opening up the sandwich, counting the shrimp and peeling back the lettuce) We need more of the sauce for this. It's not working without it.
FG4: (putting down her fork) This sweet potato slaw is nothing special. It would have been better with carrots.
FG 1: (savoring her sausage sandwich, but now feeling quite guilty about recommending this place) Mine is really good. You guys should try this.
FG3: (Putting down her sandwich and reaching for a spoon to try the crab cakes) Hey! These are actually tasty!
(All are momentarily relieved)
FG4: (Momentum builds) The red beans and rice are good, too. (It is soon dashed again) But that cornbread is so not worth the calories.
FG2: (Coming back with sauce, adding it, eating a bite of crab cake, a bite of red beans and rice, and a forkful of the jicama salad, and pausing to survey the available options from there) How about I grab us a taco sampler plate at Loteria Grill?
ALL: (Enthusiastic with relief) Great idea!

She returns bearing a plate of 14 of the most flavorful little bites of food*** you can imagine, along with a jicama salad, bright with chile, lime juice and crunch that puts the bland oversauced prior example to shame. We dig in happily, order our beignets to go****, and call it a day.

Foodie Girls Final Verdict: Go directly to Loteria.***** If you do pass Gumbo Pot, collect an Andouille sandwich and an order of crab cakes. It'll give you something good to eat while you plan your next meal.

* Zagat rated 19! 4 stars on Yelp! A pretty long line for a Monday!
** This is fact, not opinion.
*** Except for one that was distinctly reminiscent of chewing old plastic. We spent about 5 minutes trying to guess which inner organ it came from. This discussion added to the overall disgust level, and we moved on.
**** Hot, puffy and covered with powdered sugar, but for my money a far better New Orleans dessert is the maple pecan praline at Littlejohn's. They are known for their fabulous English Toffee, but their pralines are out of this world!!! Best bite of sugar in LA.

***** Their tacos kick some Kogi butt as well.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Welcome to Las Vegas

I will state upfront that I am not a Vegas person. I have, however, been known to thoroughly enjoy myself there, and have even done so on more than one occasion. If I look back for common threads about those visits, I find the following:

1. The duration of my visit was less than 48 hours.
2. My husband was with me, and my kids were not.
3. Our hotel room was peaceful, spacious, and had a luxuriously comfortable bed.* Hotel amenities included an upscale spa and eateries helmed by nationally known chefs.
4. We had a memorable meal at least one outstanding gourmet restaurant.**
5. I won enough money at a really fun, loud craps table surrounded by some of the nicest drunken strangers I ever met to pay for the entire trip and then some***.

Here are some details on my most recent foray:

1. The duration of our trip was nearly 5 days.
2. My kids were with me, and my husband was not.
3. Our hotel room was a steal at $29 a night via, and my sister, my niece, my two kids and I crammed in there with our luggage and a blow-up air mattress. Hotel amenities included a 70 lane bowling alley, a Subway and a Baskin-Robbins.
4. We ate at a buffet that cost less than $10 at least once per day.****
5. The closest I came to a craps table was when I was lugging the 12 pack of Diet Coke I bought at Target through the haze of smoke in the casino to get to our room and I accidentally bumped into one on the way.

So, let's just say this was not one of the trips where I thoroughly enjoyed myself*****. But there were some highlights:

1. My son's face lighting up with a smile from ear to ear when he hit a three pointer in the opening game of the basketball tournament that brought us all to Vegas in the first place.

2. My niece and daughter squealing with delight over the completely liquified fruit snacks they found in the car:

Me: Girls, I'm so sorry we forgot about the heat. They're ruined!
My daughter: Are you kidding? These are WAY better than regular fruit snacks. I love them!
My niece: These are super better! These are double better!
My daughter: When we get back home, we should microwave all the fruit snacks to make them do this!
My niece: Yes! Yes! Yes!

They then proceed to smear the gooey mess all over their teeth, face and fingers, grinning like maniacs.

3. Seeing Love with the kids dancing and singing in their seats, jaws agape at the magic unfolding all around them.

4. Realizing that there were so very many people who shouldn't be wearing bathing suits around the ridiculously crowded wave pool that my joining the group would be no big deal.******

5. We had been driving for maybe 10 minutes on our way to the gym, and my daughter noticed that all of the ice in the water bottle we had filled up at the hotel had melted. We were all exclaiming over how this could be possible in such a short time with the a/c on full blast in the car, when we heard this comment from my niece******* in the back seat (delivered completely deadpan and in a voice that one would swear bore the traces of a two-pack-a-day habit):

"Welcome to Las Vegas."

* Tip: Stay at the hotels that are attached to but not part of another place. My personal favorite is the oddly capitalized THEHotel at Mandalay Bay. The Signature at MGM was also lovely.
** Tops on my list: Nob Hill Tavern at MGM, DB Brasserie at the Wynn.
*** The luckiest table mates I ever had were all wearing viking horns.
****By far the tastiest meal of the trip was the $2.50 hot link sandwich that a guy was grilling in the 110 degree heat outside of the basketball gym. It was mouthwateringly good! I had one for breakfast the second day.
***** Honestly, it felt like about five thousand people from the midwest who never work out brought all their kids and some pierced neighbors to squeeze onto a sea of identical lawn chairs while a convention of tattoo parlor refugees strolled by in a constant stream. Everyone was drinking something frozen with a plastic surfboard in it. I was the only person for miles reading a book.
****** The low point was my son and daughter insisting that I accompany them on the New York New York roller coaster less than 20 minutes after I had consumed a Fatburger. Thank God I had skipped the fries with that.
******* Did I mention that she's five?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Millenial Milestone

According to Sitemeter, Cheesy Pennies has just crossed over the 1000 visit mark! How cool is that? Thanks for reading, everyone!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade - Episode 1

"Ladies Who Lunch" is a phrase that, for me at least, is laden with implied meaning, all of it negative.

Let's start with "Ladies". These women would be respledent in elegant, crisply pressed dresses, tasteful yet expensive pearls, coiffed hairdos, junior league membership, and freshly applied neutral-colored lipstick. If they have children, you would never know it, as neither their bodies nor their conversations show any trace of child-rearing, aside from the occasional boast about prep-school admissions.

Then we have "Who Lunch." It seems to me that this Lunch is the principal purpose and activity of said ladies, as their lives are otherwise devoid of demands and fulfillment. The lunch itself is served on china, with linen napkins, either poolside at the country club or in the solarium of one specimen's spacious mansion. Topics of conversation are likely to be their despair over finding and keeping good help, soliciting donations for an upcoming charity event, pilates horror stories, and the guilty pleasure of watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey on Bravo. There is iced tea and thinly sliced poached chicken salad involved, and a light chiffon type dessert which is only barely picked at although they are all secretly starving.

OK, enough with the perjorative sterotyping already. As much as this perception truly does linger wtih me, talking about it here is a defensive move on my part so that I can contrast that image with our intrepid team:

The Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade. Our mission: Chasing down great mid-day eats in LA.*

We are not coiffed. We wear no lipstick. We come hungry, and we relish every bite of our food. Paper plates are fine with us. It's a new day. It's a new generation. It's Ladies Who Lunch 2.0.

Episode 1: We Try the Truck

If you have not been under a rock, you will have heard tell of the elusive Kogi Truck. Fashioned after the plethora of mobile taco trucks that have been roaming the streets of Los Angeles since time began, this 2.0 phenomenon features a 4 star chef, a fusion of Korean BBQ and Mexican food (think short rib tacos and kimchee quesadillas), 36,687 followers who track its locale via twitter, a publicist who is obviously a genius, and a highly divided group of local afficionados who can't decide if this is the greatest food on the planet or an overrated waste of time. They officially crossed the chasm when NPR did a story on the legendary trucks.

Time for us to check it out. We discover that the Azul truck will be parked next to a Santa Monica office park from 12-3, and the rendezvous is arranged. After surveying the crowd in line for recommendations and waiting for about 20 minutes, we order pretty much every kind of taco, one of those quesadillas, and a beef burrito. A short while later, our number is called and we retreat to a picnic table with full plates and our cold Diet Cokes**.

The tacos were tasty, but mostly because of the heavily dressed slaw/salad on top of the meat. The tortillas were nothing special, and I found eating the filling on its own was a better way to go. The beef short ribs were the best of the bunch, with a nice carmelized BBQ flavor on the meat. Chicken and pork were indistinguishable and just OK, and the tofu was distinctly unappetizing. We had better luck with the kimchee quesadilla, where the tart crispiness of the cabbage contrasted well with the cheese and the sauce on top. The burrito was almost sweet compared to the other dishes, with the addition of potatoes to the filling and the subtraction of the tangy slaw that covers the tacos. We liked it.

Have we become followers, avid for our next dose of Kogi magic? Definitely not. Was it worth a try? Sure. But only if it happens to be in the neighborhood, and the line is not too long.

Foodie Girls Final Verdict: We won't be back.

If anyone out there feels the call to join the Foodie Girls, let me know. But if you're wearing make-up and pearls and don't want to talk about your kids? Forget about it!

*I am jumping the gun by giving us a title and a mission after one outing, but we do have another one scheduled for next week, so my presumption will hopefully be forgiven and perhaps even endorsed by my cohorts. If in fact we do not continue, I will demote the effort to "Two lunches I ate with my friends a while ago."
** I give them big points for choosing Coke over Pepsi, and for keeping the sodas exceptionally cold in a bed of crushed ice.
*** Photo credit on this post goes to a fellow Foodie Girl. I forgot my camera that day.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Happy endings all around

The last 48 hours have brought a flurry of good news to Cheesy Pennies HQ, and I herewith am sharing with all of you:

1. My daughter is home!!! I went up on Thursday and collected her at the Amtrak parking lot where three and a half weeks earlier the same bus had pulled away as tears rolled down my face. I cried this time, too, but with the sheer relief and joy at seeing her jumping up and down and waving at me as the bus made the turn. Her eyes were brimming, too, as she clung to her new friends and the counselors, promising to see everyone next year. When I asked if camp was too long, too short, or just right, she replied, "Way too short!", then gave me a big smile and asked where the closest In-N-Out burger was. She sang me every camp song there is as we drove to the airport, showed me that she kept all the e-mails and letters we sent her in a special place in her trunk, and then she fell asleep on the plane ride home.

I say, way too long*.

2. It's no weeks until my niece gets to California. She called me yesterday:

Her: Hi Auntie Shar! Tomorrow I am coming to California. But you know what the problem is?
Me: There can't possibly be a problem with coming to California tomorrow! We're so excited to see you!
Her: The problem is, I have to get on an airplane for about 5 hours, and the airplane has to go to Arizona, and it stops for a long time, and then it goes again, but it's more hours, and then it comes to California.
Me: I see.
Her: And, I have to get up at 8 in the morning and go to the airport first.
Me: Here's the thing. Imagine if you did all of that. You get up at 8 in the morning. You go to the airport. You sit there for hours and hours. You go to Arizona. You sit for some more hours. And at the end? You were right back in MICHIGAN!
Her: [Huge fit of giggles]. That would be BAD!
Me: See you tomorrow!
Her: See you tomorrow, Auntie Shar!

Report from my sister this morning: She gets on the plane, and literally is pushing the side of the plane with both feet and one hand to make it go faster to California. I love that girl.

3. I got a free fro yo today at Menchie's.

4. Jazzy, fan of strawberry shortcakes, is pregnant!

5. Michael Jackson is doing well. My mom gave me the full report on our drive to my house the other day.

Her: Well, Michael Jackson is just fine.
Me: [Afraid I have missed some major news bulletin about autopsy results] He is?
Her: Yes. [Beaming] His fans have paid off all that debt. Isn't that something?
Me: Mm hmm.
Her: And, he's helping all the other celebrities.
[Now I'm just afraid in general]
Her: They can see what not to do now. He showed them the pitfalls of all that craziness, and the drugs and the doctors and doing shows when you are sick and all that nonsense. You know how I'm worried about Beyonce. She came right out and said she has dual personalities. She says she is one person when she goes onstage, and then a totally different person the rest of the time. It's just not right, but that's someone that Michael can help. Poor Brittany, too. Even Miley Cyrus is in danger, but because of Michael, I think she might be OK.
[She sighs with relief]
He can truly rest in peace.

And, with my whole family back at home, so can I.

* In truth, it was probably just right, as every single stitch of clothing that she owned was absolutely filthy, her legs were a scabby, mosquito-bitten mess, and it took an hour in the bathtub for her to become recognizable again as she emerged from under a thick layer of dirt. If all the kids came home this way, they may need to truck in some more soil for the farm. If you look closely at the photo, you can see the stains on her shirt.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Clueless Dads Cooking Class

A while back, an e-mail came in from a friend:

"My husband has been asking me for cooking classes for Father's Day. I've been checking around, but haven't found anything that I think he would like. Which got me to thinking about you...Would you possibly be interested in doing a cooking class for a klutz in the kitchen, such as my husband, who just needs a good basic class? Salad, veggies, pasta, how to get it all out on the table at (or around) the same time, etc.. I was thinking that there might be several dads who would want to do this, and then they can make us all dinner, and the moms and kids could join afterward to eat! You could make a nice amount of money, too! Anyway, I know you're busy, but please think about it, and let me know your thoughts."

Here is what I should have replied:
"Wow! That is so sweet of you to think of me, but there is no way I could do that! I've never taught anybody anything before, much less several people at once. There are some amazing cooking schools around here...have you tried the New School of Cooking?"

Here is what I did reply:
"I love the idea of the clueless Dads' cooking class! It would be a ton of fun for me to work on, and the dinner party afterward is a great thought, too. I'd be glad to do it. "

Being asked, man. It's my downfall. I have some kind of ingrained need to say yes to people, especially if they ask nicely and butter me up first. Ah well. Too late now. Having committed myself to this little adventure, I set to work. The first step was to come up with a lesson plan and a menu. I e-mailed my future students:

Hi Dads!
Let me know which of the dates works best for both of you, and we will go from there. If you have anything you are dying to try, let me know, otherwise I think we will do one chicken dish and one fish dish, with several vegetarian side dishes and a dessert.

Dad #1:
Chicken and fish sounds good. Maybe some special kind of salad too, and/or a good soup -- I love chicken and beef based soups but since it's such a veggie-friendly home, maybe a vegetable soup? On the dessert front, I love simple cake -- spongecake, poundcake, coffeecake, cheesecake -- and fruit, especially citrus. If it's cool with [Dad#2] I'd like to make something that falls into one of those categories. If not, no sweat -- or maybe we could make more than one dessert?"

Whoa. Soup and multiple desserts? Must nip this in the bud. I attempt to simplify things:

Hi guys!
We will definitely be doing a salad and side dish to go with our main course, and of course, dessert. Here are two options for the menu:

Salmon Teriyaki
Steamed Jasmine Rice
Salad with berries, spiced pecans, blue cheese and champagne dressing


Lemon Herb Chicken
Pesto Risotto
Caprese Salad (tomatoes and mozzarella cheese)

Dessert for both: Cream Cheese Pound Cake

Dad #1:
If forced to choose I would pick the lemon herb chicken, but if possible I like your earlier idea of one chicken AND one fish. But if that's just unrealistic, then I vote for the lemon herb chicken with the Caprese salad -- and I love the cream cheese pound cake for dessert.

Damn. He saved the first e-mail.

Dad #2:
I agree . Must do one chicken and one fish. Don't want teriyaki salmon as my wife makes brilliant salmon. Prefer TUNA. Let's do the two proteins then the risotto and caprese with the cream cheese pound cake and some berries.

Dad #1:
No problem from me re: skipping salmon but I might prefer something other than tuna, a little different, like swordfish or snapper or something?

Dad #2:
Halibut or snapper.

Fine. I made my bed. Must lie in it.

Hi guys!
Our cooking adventure is scheduled for this coming Sunday. I just wanted to confirm the date with you guys, as well as our menu*:

Tomato and Mozzarella Salad
Pesto Risotto
Lemon-herb Chicken
Flash-roasted Snapper or Swordfish (we will see which looks better when we shop)
Cream Cheese Pound Cake

I'll be putting together an ingredient list tomorrow, along with a list of the things we will need as we cook. Let's plan to meet at Whole Foods at 2:30 pm. We will shop for about 30 minutes, then head back and start cooking. Assuming we start cooking at 3:30, I would estimate we'd be ready to serve dinner between 6:30 and 7.

Let me know if this plan suits you both, and I'll look forward to seeing you on Sunday!

Dad #2:
Sounds great. I'd rather a different salad. Also, we will still do vegetarian side dishes as you referenced? We will also need to make pasta with butter for the kids.

Note to self: Charge more.

I had the risotto and salad as sides. We can see what looks good for a different salad when we shop.

Dad #2:
I'd like a cooked vegetable as well.

Well I'd like to shoot myself. But I don't. Instead, I added grilled asparagus to the menu.

And you know what? It worked out unbelievably well. My students were fun, attentive and incredibly cooperative. They rolled up their sleeves, washed their hands, chopped onions, pounded chicken, cracked eggs, sliced tomatoes, measured herbs, buttered a bundt pan, grated cheese, zested oranges, preheated ovens, stirred in stock, drained mozzarella, garnished with basil, deglazed with wine, mounted with cream, drizzled olive oil, sprinkled salt, plated everything and had dinner ready right on time. They even made pasta for the kids. Way to go, clueless Dads!!!**

I ducked out just as dinner was served, exhausted but thrilled by the way the day had gone. I'm so glad I said yes.***

* I've posted the risotto recipe before. To get the others, you'll have to sign up for a class of your own. I'm a cooking teacher now, you know.
** As an added bonus, I got an e-mail the next day saying that everyone loved the food! Clueless Dads rule!
*** Turns out that most of the time I'm glad that I say yes to things. The recent exception is when I said yes to picking up my Dad in Beverly Hills and taking him home to Culver City at the same time as I had said yes to picking up my Mom from the grocery store in Encino. I may be a professional driver, but even I couldn't pull that one off.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How to make the dessert in that picture

Chocolate Mousse Shots with Salted Caramel and Whipped Creme Fraiche

A combination of a recipe from Dining In, by G. Garvin and one by Nancy Silverton in Great Gatherings

For the mousse

½ c. whole milk
2 c. whipping cream
4 egg yolks
½ c. sugar
1 Tbs. vanilla
10 oz. dark chocolate, chopped

In a small saucepan, combine the milk and ½ cup of the cream. Bring to boiling on high heat. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the sugar until well combined. Whisk a small amount of the milk mixture into the egg mixture. Gradually whisk in the rest. Add the vanilla and continue to whisk. Stain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve. While still hot, pour the mixture over the chopped chocolate in a bowl set over hot water. Let stand for 5 minutes. Whisk until smooth. Set aside and cool. Whip the remaining 1 ½ cups of cream until soft peaks form. When the chocolate mixture is no longer warm to the touch, stir in a small amount of whipped cream to lighten. Fold in the remaining whipped cream. Spoon the mousse carefully into small glasses. Set in the fridge for at least an hour, or up to 2 days.

For the caramel sauce

¾ c. heavy cream
¼ vanilla bean, split
3 Tbs. butter
3 Tbs. light corn syrup
¾ cup sugar
1/3 c. water (about)
1 ½ tsp fleur de sel

Pour the cream into a small saucepan. Scrape the vanilla bean, then add the scrapings and the pod to the pot. Place pan over medium heat for about 3 minutes, or until cream begins to simmer. Add the butter, stir, remove from heat and set aside. Get a large bowl of ice water ready. In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the corn syrup and the sugar. Add enough water to make a wet, sandy texture. Place over medium high heat, bring to a boil, and cook without stirring, occasionally swirling the pan to check on carmelization, for 10 minutes, or until the sugar turns a medium amber color. Remove from the heat and add the cream mixture. Careful – it will bubble a lot! Whisk to combine until smooth. Put the pot in the ice water bath and let cool. Pour a thin layer of caramel sauce on top of the mousse, cover with plastic wrap, and return to the refrigerator. Can be made a day ahead.

Fresh whipped creme fraiche

½ pint of whipping cream
¼ c. of crème fraiche
2 Tbs. of powdered sugar
dash of vanilla extract

Whip cream and crème fraiche in chilled bowl of an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Add sugar and vanilla, mix until just combined. Can be made 3 hours ahead and chilled until serving.

To assemble:

Just before serving, take mousse glasses out of the fridge. Sprinkle a few grains of good quality sea salt on top of the caramel. Add a dollop of the whipped cream to each glass, garnish with chocolate shavings, if desired, and serve.

Just for the record, no matter how much fun I had doing this party, I will never ever go into the catering business as a job. It's really hard!!!

I go pro for a night

I have never been one to have a party catered. If people come over, I cook for them. In fact, there have been only three such events we've ever hosted. The first was a graduation party, with food by The Cannoli King, the second was my Dad's birthday party, where a giant In-N-Out truck parked in the driveway, and the third was an auction prize from that bastion of foodies, my daughter's school. All of these worked out nicely, but I have to say this last one really made me rethink my whole do-it-myself party stance.

The scene is my house. It is quite clean. There are flowers and candles in the appropriate places. In honor of my husband's birthday, we have invited a group of friends over. An hour before the guests were due to arrive, I was not in the kitchen presiding over a hot stove and a sink full of dishes in my stained t-shirt and sweatpants, barking orders at my husband about vacuuming and filling up ice buckets. Nope. I was not cooking*. I was opening the door for the caterers, showing the bartender where to set up, and heading for the bathroom to take the first relaxed shower I have ever had in the history of hostessing at my house**. It was sheer bliss. And you should have seen the looks on my friend's faces when, not only did I personally greet them upon arrival***, but these lovely creatures in crisp white aprons began passing little bites of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus among them. Bite after bite of gourmet goodies appeared before us, each tastier than the last.

At the end of the night****, a single male friend of ours took me aside and asked:

Who are your caterers? They're HOT!

"Of course they are," I agreed. "They're moms."

Hands down, it was the best return on a charitable contribution that I've ever had.*****

When auction time came around this year, I was invited to join the catering mom squad******. It was enormously gratifying to see the price escalate as we enjoyed cocktails in the ballroom on the night of the auction. Yay, us!

And it was equally terrifying to get the call: Party for 25 on July 11. Uh oh.

The week before, I planned and practiced. My husband was totally fine with this.
The day before, I prepped and packed. My husband was less fine with this, as I stayed up really late and kicked him by accident when I finally did get to bed.
The day of the party? I reverted to my old ways.** But, after a short delay...

Platter of assorted cheeses*******

Ahi Tuna Tartare on Tortilla Chips

Chocolate Mousse Shots with Salted Carmel and Whipped Creme Fraiche

We rocked!********

* OK. I admit I didn't think they would actually bring food, so I made a cheese platter and a big pot of gumbo just in case, but it was all done WAY ahead of time for a change.
** I usually take the first ring of the bell as my cue to fling the sponge at my startled husband and make a mad dash for our room to start getting ready.
*** My husband has perfected the art of both greeting and then having long conversations with people I have invited that he doesn't know in my absence. He barely looks awkward anymore.
**** As the caterers were cleaning the kitchen!!!
***** Far, far exceeding the KCRW messenger bag and the guest passes from the zoo.
****** Strangely enough, someone had dropped out. Offended by my cheese platter or a portent of how much work would be involved? Who knows...
******* Clearly, when in doubt, I whip up a cheese platter.
******** Don't take my word for it. Direct quote from our client, via e-mail: "THANK YOU GUYS SOOOO MUCH for the amazing food. It was fantastic. Can't thank you all enough. You rock."

This post officially sets the record for footnotes. In order to avoid any more, I will put the recipe for the dessert pictured here in its very own post.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Our first harvest

Tomato, chives, and flat leaf parsley from the garden. I can now reasonably claim to my daughter that she doesn't have to go away next year, since we have a farm right here.

No way she'll buy that, but I had to try. If anyone wants to drop off a chicken coop, a baby goat and some kittens, I may have a better shot.

I learn a thing or two about cooking and actually enjoy it

Some of you may know that I recently spent 26 Mondays in a row* taking an introductory pro chef's cooking class. It was the kind of thing where we spent a whole class on how to make stock, and another whole class on how to grind our own sausages and put cooked chopped liver in a pot with fat on top. Plus, I am now a whiz at de-boning small game birds and I actually know what a beurre blanc sauce** is. I even got a certificate! I learned a lot, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of the other students***. Our teacher, on the other hand, was a major disappointment. Don't get me wrong, the guy could cook. The guy could plate. The guy could name the parts of a cow. He just didn't seem to want to be doing any of that with us. It was as if he'd been sentenced to be there through some kind of a work release program to atone for prior transgressions****. Let's just say that none of us signed up for the advanced class.

But the lure of learning was not totally quenched, and a fellow veteran and I boldly ventured forth to class this weekend. I am so glad we did, and here's why:

1. We learned more in 45 minutes than Mr. Bland taught us in weeks.
2. All our ingredients were measured and assembled for us ahead of time.
3. Said ingredients were farm fresh, high quality and did not get defrosted and reused from the Sunday night class that came before us.
4. We got to make this tuna:

Grilled Tuna and Avocado Salad with Toasted Corn Vinaigrette
Recipe from the excellent Marinades, Barbecue Sauces and Dry Rub Grilling class at the New School of Cooking

1 1/2 lbs. albacore tuna, cut into 1 1/2 inch steaks

grated zest of 1 orange
2 Tbs. chopped basil leaves
1 Tbs. chopped rosemary leaves
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped

1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
kernels from 2 ears of corn
2 shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
juice of 1 orange
2 Tbs. chopped basil leaves
1 Tbs. chopped thyme leaves
1 Tbs. chopped cilantro leaves
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

6 c. mixed greens
2 ripe avocados, pitted and sliced
fresh cilantro for garnish

Marinate tuna: Combine marinade ingredients in a large nonreactive bowl and stir to mix well. Add the tuna and cover with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour.

Make the vinaigrette: Place a large skillet over medium high heat and when it's hot, add 2 Tbs. of the olive oil. Add the corn and cook until it has browned about 4 minutes. Add the shallots and the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, and add the balsamic vinegar, orange juice, the remaining olive oil, basil, thyme, cilantro, salt and pepper, stirring well after each addition. Let cool to room temperature.

Cook the tuna over a hot grill, turning once, until the outside is charred and the inside is still a little rare, about 2-3 minutes per side. Place the greens on a serving plate and top with the avocado. Place the tuna on top and drizzle with the corn dressing. Garnish with cilantro and serve immediately.

5. There was also skirt steak, grilled shrimp, baby back ribs, Mediterranean chicken get the idea. And it was all delicious!!!

We're going back in August for an Italian class...come on by. And if you can't make it, I'll be sure to post the recipes for you.

* At 4 hours a pop, that's 104 hours of my life and half a year of Mondays invested, in case you were counting
** Lots and lots and lots of melted butter
*** With one exception. She got mad when one of us noticed her score for the day was added wrong, and she hadn't come in first after all. After that she shunned us, especially after a compliment about her handbag resulted in her claiming that "you know nothing about me, or my purse."
**** Given how boring he was, this is probably not the real back story. He just hates teaching.

No more for me, thanks

Inspired by a recent feature article in Bon Appetit magazine - Around the World in 80 Dogs - e-mail assignments came in from our hostess for an evening of bun-laden abundance. (I, of course, got the chili dog) We descended upon her kitchen with our matching Le Crueset pots of toppings, and after much wine, sampling, and artful assembly, a platter emerged from the kitchen to the oohs and ahs of the assembled husbands and children*.

A cool breeze blew through the redwood trees off of the back deck. The kids' cheeks were flushed with the pleasure of play and the giddiness that can only come from unlimited
make-your-own sodas. The men were chuckling knowingly about some iPhone app that reminds you to do stuff.** And an adorable little voice piped up:

"Mommy! Mommy! Can I have the one with the salad on it, PLEASE?"

Clearly, this was not my house, but a damn nice place to visit. And then, the conversation amongst us ladies turned to the inevitable aging of our children, and how grown up they all were getting.

Hostess: It just makes me want to have another baby. Almost every month I'm overcome with this desire and I have to really talk myself out of it.
Guest: Oh my gosh, me too. I would love to have another one!
They turn to me expectantly.
I look at them blankly, and then speak slowly as they are clearly insane*** and should be handled gently.
Me: No baby for me. Anyone for dessert?

Cornmeal Shortbread Cookies
Adapted from a recipe**** by Nancy Silverton in the Great Gatherings cookbook

1/2 c. butter, softened
6 Tbs. powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. lemon zest
3/4 c. plus 2 Tbs. flour
1/4 c. medium grind polenta or cornmeal

About 1/2 tsp. of fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped.
1/4 c. raw sugar

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and the sugar and beat on high for about 5 minutes, or until creamy and smooth. Add the vanilla, the salt and the lemon zest and beat until combined. Reduce speed to low, and add the flour and the cornmeal. Mix until fully incorporated. The dough will be soft. Using wax paper, form the dough into two logs, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Securely cover the logs in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for several hours or a few days. When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350, and take the logs out of the fridge so they can soften a little bit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat. Combine the rosemary and the sugar, and spread out on another baking sheet. When the dough logs are soft enough for the sugar to stick to them when pressed, roll each log in the rosemary sugar. Slice rounds about 1/4 inch thick, and place about 2 inches apart on the baking sheets. Bake for 8-9 minutes, or until edges are just slightly golden brown.

Click to print this recipe!

* For those of you who are wondering, my favorite dog of the evening was the Indian Dog with Dal and Red Onion Riata. It's the one on the far right in the photo and it was terrific.
** I'm happy to do this for free, as would your own spouse, btw.
*** I was relieved later in the conversation to hear a relatively sensible analysis of the impact of sleep deprivation on those old enough to know better, and a confirmation that these unfathomable urges were curable by the normal ebb of hormones. Thus there will likely be no impending baby annoucements from this crew, and I can continue to visit this bucolic slice of heaven without fear for the safety of my family.
**** Her recipe calls for rolling out the dough and cutting thin rounds, and has the rosemary as part of a pine nut nougatine that bakes on top. It sounds awesome, but I skipped that part because of a nut allergy and invented the rosemary sugar instead. I loved the results.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Hopefully, the previous post finally gives the lie to the label: Stay-at-home mom.

Job perks

Ever go out to run an errand in the middle of the day, hit a huge snarl of traffic and think to yourself, "Who ARE all these people? Don't they have jobs?". To answer your questions, it's me, and it turns out that my job basically is to drive around in circles all day. Sorry about holding you up.

Like any professional, I have developed some tools of the trade that have been integral to my (modest) success at my work:

1. Audio support from When you drive like I do, 5 minute songs just don't cut it. Go for the unabridged epic novel, preferably one that has sequels. I got through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in about a week and a half last year.

2. Military-style passenger management tactics: TV, off! Shoes, on! Move it, soldier! I said MARCH! You too, doggie! You can pee when you're dead!

3. Well-stocked vehicle: Bottled water, snacks (adult, kid, dog), reading materials (wait time!), plastic bags, nav system, chargers (phone, ipod, DS, PSP), coloring supplies, balls (basketball, soccer, old tennis balls, rubber balls), karate gear, kickboxing gear, umbrella, paper towels, eyeglass cleaner.

4. A mental map of all the great places to stop for food along the way.

In case this is all too abstract, I thought I would share today's route with you.

8 am: Depart home base en route to basketball camp. Begin conference call.
8:05 am: Pick up another camper. Mute call.
8:30 am: End call.
8:40 am: Camp drop-off. Thank you, carpool lane on the 405!
9:05 am: Reward stop! Santa Monica Seafood and Huckleberry Bakery*. Ordinarily way too far from home, but totally on the way today. Breakfast (maple bacon biscuit, baby!) and dinner (ahi tuna!) in one fell swoop.

9:20 am: Spy slew of open parking spaces at Bay Cities! Rarity draws me in, and I pick up some of their amazing bread** for my lunch.
10 am: Pick up dog at home.
10:05 am: Dog park. Dog meets lovely family with small child. Takes ball from small child. Dog pops the ball between his huge sharp teeth, then proceeds to romp and play with deflated plastic shell until he has ripped it to shreds across the park. Luckily, the mom has great sense of humor and recognizes this was all her fault for bringing the child and the ball to the DOG park. Smiles all around.
10:30 am: Drop dog at home.
10:50 am: Late for yoga, but not as late as usual. Must stretch away that biscuit.
12:30 pm: Gas light bright yellow. Funny, don't remember being low on gas this morning. Detour to Shell station that is always 2 cents cheaper that most places, and a good 20 cents cheaper than anything in my neighborhood. This stop is not on the map above, because it is my secret gas station.
1 pm: Pick up Mom and Elena at home.*** Dog comes along for the ride and to get his head rubbed all the way to Burbank. Get some good financial advice**** from Suze Orman, via Mom, along the way.
1:30 pm: Drop Elena off.
1:40 pm: Drop Mom off.
1:50 pm: Reward stop! Porto's Bakery. Large Diet Coke to go, plus cheese rolls***** for dessert tonight.
2:30 pm: Arrive home again. Dog collapses with exhaustion.******

Break out the salami. Make a sandwich. Turn on the laptop. Get to work.

Total distance covered: 85.5 miles. I kid you not.

* Yes, that place.
** It is crusty on the outside, slightly tangy, and soft and chewy inside. It's pretty much the world's most perfect bread for sandwiches. It costs $1.39 for an entire loaf, hot from the oven, and they bake them fresh all day long. I say, skip the sandwich line there, and just make your own. My treat today was bread, butter, calabrese salami, a few shavings of Parmesan cheese, and some snipped chives.
*** Do not use Military Passenger Management Tactics with these particular passengers. Instead, ask nicely if they are ready and help them with their things.
**** Keep cash on hand to cover about 6-9 months of your basic household expenses as a rainy-day fund.
***** Their cheese rolls are basically croissant pastry, wrapped around a cheese filling that is just slightly sweet, with a dusting of sugar on top. Flaky, buttery, sugary, and then that great cheesy custard middle. Perfection.
****** Why he is tired I will never know. He probably swallowed some plastic from that ball and I'll have to drive to the vet tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Small miracles

I saw her on Sunday. She's fine. More than fine...she's fantastic. Settled in, happy, befriended, connected. She's gone to this strange and wonderful and remote place and made it her own. I was so impressed by that. I am in awe of my daughter.

As proud as I was, it was even more awesome to see her face light up when I called her name.

A new baby goat was born at camp the day that I visited.

That mom only got about two hours before her daughter was standing up all by herself.

I had a little longer with mine. And both of our daughters still need us, at least for a while.

Before I get going...

I have to share my new favorite word, courtesy of Schott's Vocab:

Iquitarod - A description of Sarah Palin's resignation as Governor of Alaska.

The Iditarod is a grueling c.1,150 mile sled dog race, contested annually in Alaska. Her speech was a grueling 19 minute complete mess. This, on the other hand, is a 12 minute stroke of comic genius.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Drunken celebration

In honor of the good news today, the dinner got drunk*.

Drunken Tri-Tip Tacos
Beef tri-tip roast
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
blackening seasoning, taco seasoning, or other flavorful rub
olive oil
1 onion, thickly sliced
small handful of pancetta, or a few slices of bacon, chopped
1 c. red wine
2 bottles of dark beer
2 tsp. minced garlic

For this recipe, you can either use a frying pan/crock pot combo, or a dutch oven. I used the former today. Trim off any excess fat from your meat, and then season all over with the salt, pepper, and flavoring spice.

Heat about 3 Tbs. of olive oil in a frying pan (or your dutch oven) over medium high heat. When oil is hot, add the roast and sear on all sides until it is nice and brown. Remove roast from the pan. Pour the wine into the pan to deglaze it, scraping up any brown bits from the meat. Allow wine to simmer for about 3 minutes.
Put the sliced onion and the pancetta or bacon into the bottom of your crock pot. Place the meat on top. Pour the wine mixture over the meat, and then pour on the beer.  Cook on low for 8 hours. (If using a dutch oven, just put everything in with the wine after it simmers, and roast at 300 for 3-4 hours). When it's done, the meat will literally fall apart if you poke it with a fork.

Remove from the pot, and pull meat apart. Get out your frying pan again. Heat up 2 Tbs. of olive oil. Add the minced garlic, and cook until fragrant. Add the meat and about 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook until liquid is evaporated and the meat is slightly crisped, then flip the meat over and repeat. If you like, you can take the cooked onions out of the pot, drain and chop them, and stir those in, too.

You are now ready for some seriously awesome tacos!!!

Don't forget the fixings!
Warm flour tortillas
chopped onions and cilantro
fresh salsa
shredded lettuce
grated cheese
sour cream

*If you want to get drunk, too, I recommend margaritas with these.