For those moments during 'the Holidays' when you don't want to emotioally connect to your food
Every year, somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, after countless meals seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg, an overwhelming amount of pumpkin and squash, and an almost maniacal emphasis on all things decadent, I become momentarily oversaturated. The thought of yet another meal served with the intent to coat my insides in warmth, nostalgia and rich, top-button-unfastening indulgence has everything inside me screaming for something light, bright and totally non-emotional.
Don't get me wrong, I love food with feeling, but after weeks and weeks of being made to have an emotional connection to everything from the latte I order at the coffee house, to the shameless Holiday rendition of my favorite granola, I crave a meal that leaves me feeling, well, nothing. Nothing but totally satisfied and just a little virtuous, that is.
The thought of sweet, bright and clean mandarin and blood oranges, peppery, sharp arugula, earthy beets and tangy, warm goat cheese served up with creamy avocado and toasted pine nuts, has me breathing a satisfied sigh of relief and gives me the momentary respite I need, in order to power through the remaining three weeks of excess.
The measurements for this salad aren't particularly vital - if you like more greens than fruit, by all means, skimp on the fruit, and via versa.
To fan the avocado, slice it in half and remove the pit. Scoop out the two halves from the shell using a spoon, keeping each half intact. Thinly slice the avocado halves, and then gently fan the slices using your fingers and light pressure.
To sear the goat cheese, roll it into little balls (I use about 1-2 tbsp per ball), then flatten them into discs. Coat the outsides of the discs in almond meal by gently pressing the discs into it.
Sear the cheese on an oiled pan over low-medium heat, until lightly browned. It's a delicate process, as I don't like to add a binder to the cheese, so just keep the heat low and work carefully.
Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan, over low heat, until fragrant and browned. (They go from toasty to burnt pretty quickly, so keep a close eye on them!)
Combine the arugula, beets and both oranges, Top them with the seared goat cheese medallions, a fan of avocado, some pomegranate seeds and a smattering of toasted pine nuts.
Dress the salad with a little olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and serve it up!
Simple, satisfying and probably lighter than anything you've had all season. Don't worry, we'll all get back to crying tears of happiness over Holiday pies and pork roasts soon enough - so seize the opportunity to savor a meal that doesn't trigger more memories than your cinnamon-soaked brain (and insides) can handle right now.
Ya feel me?
In the final run up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, planning and practice make perfect
You can't step on stage opening night without having learned your lines, you can't show up to game one of the World Series without having trained during the off-season, and you certainly can't wake up Thanksgiving morning without having practiced (or at least planned) your culinary lineup. (Two baseball references in one sentence - that probably won't happen again.) While the old adage that says 'practice makes perfect' may be a tad on the optimistic side (I gave up on cooking white rice 'perfectly' years ago), there's certainly something to be said for stepping into the ring with the weight of some serious training in your gloves. (I'm not quite sure where this is coming from. but somewhere I hear my father sighing in relief.)
The meals prepared for Thanksgiving and Christmas (or any other major celebration, for that matter), are generally high-stress meals. Sure, in an ideal world and according to most of what comes out of Hollywood, we all stand around the stove, calmly and quietly stuffing turkeys, peeling potatoes and scratch-making pies worthy of some serious picture taking, while playfully pelting cranberries across the kitchen and sipping on cider stirred with cinnamon sticks and sobriety.
The last time I checked, however, the world wasn't ideal and mom and I stood sweaty-browed and hot-flashed in the kitchen, trying to time a turkey that cooked far faster than anticipated with six side dishes that all seemed to require the oven at the same time, while taking refuge in sips of cider so heavily laced with bourbon that if the tryptophan didn't get us, the brown stuff certainly would.
The idea that a meal with a year's worth of build up and anticipation behind it, should be anything less than nerve wracking, is overwhelmingly optimistic, to say the least.
That's why I'm a firm believer in rehearsal. I'm a firm believer in having your own back, and in giving yourself a leg up on the day. Game plans and strategies make you a much more agreeable host and much easier for your family to be around. (In my experience, turkeys, stuffings and gravies lend themselves to a whole host of expletives, otherwise absent from the average mealtime.)
While every year brings with it a series of standby's, without which the celebratory table would be incomplete, I try to introduce a few newcommers to the party, from time to time. Though you can't beat the classics, we'd still be eating canned pineapple ham, bathed in aspic, if people hadn't started sneaking in less gelatinous offerings, in acts of mild rebellion.
This year, I think I may add this squash and barley 'salad' to the mix, because aspic has no place on my table, and while it may be a Thursday, I'll only take #tbt so far.
Set your oven to 400*F.
On a lined baking sheet, toss together your squash and onion slices with the thyme spigs, garlic cloves, pepper flakes, olive oil, agave and salt to taste, and roast them for 20 minutes, tossing once, about half way through. Then allow them to cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, cook your barley in salted water, according to the instructions on the packet. I used quick cooking pearl barley, which only took about 10 minutes. Spread the barley on a baking sheet or large plate, and allow it to cool to room temperature.
Discard the garlic cloves and thyme sprigs, and combine the barley and squash/onion mixture in a large bowl.
Melt the butter in a small pan until it starts to bubble, but be careful not to let it burn. Add the sage leaves and fry them until crisp – about 30 seconds. Place the sage leaves on a paper towel to drain off the excess butter.
Crumble the sage leaves into the barley mixture, add the crumbled goat cheese and season with salt and pepper. If you like, you can drizzle over a little extra olive oil and agave, and then toss everything to combine. Serve at room temperature.
In a sea of predictably heavy sides and scene stealers, this is a nod to a newer, lighter tradition. I've made it twice now, and I'm confident that it won't stress me out when the air conditioner fails, while four burners are on high, the oven's set to 400 and the bourbon, which was thought to be plentiful, runs out. This one, is in the bag.
*A Delicata squash is a long, almost tubular yellow squash, with green ridged lines running along it. You can eat the skin, which gives it a really lovely, almost chewy texture, so don't worry about peeling it.
Because when the ingredients speak for themselves, you shut up and listen
Have you ever eaten a vegetable and thought 'wow, this is exactly what this vegetable should taste like'? I mean, like, bitten into a carrot and thought 'this is the most carrot-y carrot I've ever had - I didn't know a carrot could be so, well, carrot-like!' Instead of something more along the lines of 'babe, where's the dip?'
You may be one of the lucky ones who answers in the affirmative, but for most, vegetables simply taste like a vague semblance of what their corresponding Magic Marker shade may have smelled like, and act, primarily, as a vehicle for hummus and the like.
Unless you're fortunate enough to do your produce shopping at a local farmer's market (and even that can be hit or miss - just because it's farm fresh and organic, doesn't mean it'll get you anywhere near as excited as a chargrilled ribeye steak with a side of, umm, chargrilled ribeye steak) you're probably living a life of underwhelming veg, with the odd standout making its way into your crisper drawer from time to time.
The reality is, the reason vegetable dishes are so often doctored up with lots of cheese, garlic, butter and bacon, is that the produce being served can't stand on its own two feet. Let's be honest, you're not ordering the brussel sprouts, you're ordering the bacon and browned butter they're basking in - and, most of the time, so am I!
Though I've been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some truly outstanding examples of fruits and vegetables through work and by living in a state that always seems to have something in season, the true potential of a vegetable wasn't made clear to me until one rainy evening on the opposite coast, in the Hudson Valley.
If you haven't been to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, find a way to make it happen. Not only are you in for an amazing dining experience, you get treated to a deeper understanding of what food, at its most naked, should taste like. (They also serve foie gras, sandwiched between shards of paper-thin, salted dark chocolate - I almost cried. No, seriously, if I were someone who OMG'd, I would have OMG'd...all over the place. So, if the 'deeper understanding' bit isn't enough to get you there, this borderline inappropriate, dip into almost pornographic indulgence, should be.)
Dan Barber, the genius behind Blue Hill, is the epitome of the 'farm to table' dining movement, and I would say 90% of what you consume at his restaurants was grown, raised and harvested at the Stone Barns farm. And after a (very) late night, post-work, hunger inducing Netflix screening of his Chef's Table episode, I knew I had to taste the fruits of his labor for myself.
And boy, did I taste. Every course was, quite honestly, magical. The execution was, of course, perfect, but the courses that stood out the most, were the simplest - the ones that required no execution apart from simply growing the ingredients with care, in soil so tended to, he probably could have served it to me as an amuse.
The dish that really gave me an education in the potential of a vegetable, was served on a humble wooden plank. Small spikes stood at attention down its center, with perfect pieces of raw vegetables skewered atop. After a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt, said plank was dispatched from the kitchen and placed in front of me. Beautiful, yes, but raw vegetables as an appetizer? And no dip? Oh, yes...yes, yes, yes!
I've never had a tomato that tasted more like a tomato, or a piece of squash that tasted more like a piece of squash. I seem to remember it actually stopping me in my tracks - speechless and astounded, eating a glorified crudité platter reminiscent of no catered office party ever.
Though everything we had that night was more than memorable, that one little mid-course was a welcome reminder that immaculate ingredients prepared simply, can actually change your understanding of food, quite deeply. And that a vegetable has the potential to be perfection, when given the opportunity to grow into everything it was intended to be.
So, when I heard of a squash developed by the Vegetable Breeding Institute at Cornell University, in collaboration with none other than Dan Barber himself, I thought 'that squash is going to taste like what every squash dreams of growing up to be' and I knew I had to try it - by no means was I disappointed.
The Honey Nut Squash is something special indeed. Think of a mini butternut squash, then amplify the flavor and the sweetness tenfold - a mighty punch, packed into a teeny, tiny gourd, so enchanting you feel barbaric slicing it in half and roasting the hell out of it. But barbarian that I am, slice it and roast it, I did.
For the squash:
Set your oven to 400*F.
Slice the squash halves into 1" thick wedges, toss them with the olive oil, cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste, and spread them out on a foiled baking sheet. Bake them at 15 minutes, until tender. Then allow them to cool.
Meanwhile, slice your apples into thin wedges and sauté them in butter over medium heat, until browned and soft, but not mushy, about 5-7 minutes. Allow them to cool.
Finally, toss the cooled squash and apples with the arugula, chopped nuts, pomegranate seeds, a splash of olive oil and flakey sea salt and pepper to taste.
That's all she wrote. No heavy dressing required - I'm telling you, the honey nut doesn't need it.
It took an evening of driving through the rain with a friend and the combined nighttime eyesight of an earthworm, an hour outside the city, to Pocantico Hills, NY, to truly realize that such simplicity was possible.
That being said, I'm not turning my nose up at dip - dip's delicious. Oh, and chargrilled ribeye. Chargrilled ribeye's good too.
because birthdays are about cake, even when You're a little on the savory side
I will freely admit that I'm totally the girl who makes her own birthday cake - almost every year. 'Happy birthday to me!' I think, as I frost three layers of celebratory genoise. No, it's not because I don't have a wonderful group of friends and family who offer to take care of such things - it's because I know what I like. When you're the person people come to for dessert, doesn't it make sense to provide yourself with the same experience? I believe it falls under the 'treat yourself' and 'because I'm worth it' mantras we so often utter, right before making a really frivolous or irresponsible decision. (Has anyone else been shopping after two glasses of wine, btw? You're totally worth it until the rosé colored glasses come off.) No, I'm not a control freak.
Ok, maybe just a baby control freak, but I'm ok with that. We all have something. Cake by me it is.
Not only do I make my own cake, I also try to make a birthday cake (or any cake) for as many of my friends as I can manage. I have a stack of cake boxes at the ready, stowed under my desk, for precisely these occasions.
When you're a kid, birthday cake is a bit of a given and chances are, mom or dad will have you covered. From homemade to store-bought, cake features prominently as part of your special day, from the age when you'll probably stick your tiny foot in it, to the age when you're too embarrassed to be celebrating with your parents to actually enjoy it. It simply isn't a birthday until the designated amount of candles have dripped their inedible wax into the frosting of a cake so loaded with sugar, it's a wonder you make it through the remainder of the day after eating it. And what is another year gone by, without a flame snuffing wish by which to enter the next.
As an adult, however. you have to hope that someone else assumes the parental responsibility, or it falls on you to take matters into your own hands. I try to assume that responsibility when I can, because no matter how grown up my friends are, they still light up at the sight of piped buttercream. And sprinkles. Sprinkles will always make 'em smile.
I have made quite a few of these celebratory cakes in the last few years, for many a sweet-toothed friend and co-worker, but this week, I was faced with a bit of an obstacle. The birthday of one of my nearest and dearest was looming and, despite the fact that he shuns the idea of drawing attention to this occasion at work, I was intent on making him a cake. Because it's my party and I'll bake if I want to, dammit...right? Ish. (Still not a control freak.)
Obstacles two, three and four were that he doesn't care for sweets and that he's lactose and gluten intolerant.
Now, you may be thinking 'Tess, just throw in the towel, you're fighting a losing battle here!' Sure, sure, sure I could. But I'm stubborn as hell, and if I want to make a cake, I'm going to make a damn cake. (Let's call it headstrong - that has a more positive ring to it.)
So how do you celebrate without sweets, gluten and dairy? Oh, and without really celebrating? You realize that he can tolerate goat milk and cheese, that he likes beets and that if you serve the 'cake' up once almost everyone has left, it's a little less like celebrating and a little more like enjoying an extravagant midnight snack with a glass of champagne and a few select co-workers. And so, the beet salad birthday cake was born.
With sliced, roasted beets to serve as the cake layers, whipped goat cheese to serve as the frosting and toasted, salted macadamia nuts for some added crunch and decorative flair, you end up with something that looks so much like birthday cake, friends will be utterly surprised when they unwittingly bite into something much more savory than they had expected.
Set your oven to 400*F.
Place your beets on a large baking sheet covered with a sheet of aluminum foil. Drizzle the olive oil over the beets and season them with salt and pepper. Tear off another sheet of aluminum foil and lay it over the beets. Crimp the two sheet together at the edges, to form a sealed pocket for your beets to cook in. Roast them for 45 minutes to an hour, until tender all the way through.
Once the beets are roasted, and cooled enough to handle, rub the skins off, using two paper towels. Set the beets aside to cool completely.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the goat cheese, lemon zest, goat yogurt and salt and pepper to taste. Whip the ingredients at medium speed, until completely incorporated and smooth. You want a 'pipeable' consistency, so if you need to add a little more yogurt to make that happen, by all means do. Place the 'frosting' in a piping bag, fitted with a star tip.
Slice your beets to somewhere between a 1/4 inch and a 1/2 inch thickness, using a mandolin or a knife and a steady hand.
Chop your nuts (reserving a few whole ones to decorate with on top) and tear your basil (also reserving a few whole leaves for the top.)
Using a 6" cake ring placed on top of a cake plate or board, begin to layer your ingredients. Start with a thin layer of frosting, so that the cake sticks to the plate and doesn't slide, then add your first layer of sliced beets. You'll have to cut a few of the rounds to fit - don't worry, you won't be able to tell on the finished cake.
Next, pipe a layer of frosting, top that with some of the chopped nuts and a bit of the basil, then repeat with a beet layer. Continue this process, until you reach the top of the cake ring. At this point, place the cake in the fridge, so that the goat cheese frosting sets.
When you're ready to serve it, gently slide the ring up and off the cake. Decorate the top with the remaining frosting, whole macadamias and a few whole basil leaves.
And there you have it! A cake that's also an appetizer. The stuff that every child's birthday dreams are made of!
Seriously though, everyone needs a birthday cake. It's just a fact. And if you have someone in your life who makes a beeline for the salad bar instead of the dessert table, this one's sure to be a hit.
Ok, so they're not really noodles, but damn they're delicious.
Living in Los Angeles can be a magical thing. The weather is always beautiful, you’re a stone’s throw from the beach and when the urge to slalom down snow-kissed mountains strikes, you’re never really more than two hours away from après ski. I mean, skiing. You’re never more than two hours away from skiing.
But living in Los Angeles can be exhausting, too. It is the birth place of so many trends, fads and philosophies that range from the rational to the downright ridiculous, that, in a place where it’s already hard to keep your head on your shoulders, it’s even harder to keep it on straight.
This is particularly true when it comes to food and diet. It’s a zoo out here and I swear, the rules change every week.
If you thought, for example, that the act of separating peas and carrots on a plate was simply the neurotic behavior of the under-10s, and that it eventually just gives way to the realization that everything ends up in the same place anyway, you’re quite mistaken.
Here we separate, substitute and eliminate according to the latest ‘it’ doctor, hot celebrity or current moon phase. Yup, we take our cues from Bieber and how the moon pulls the tides, in equal measure, because life’s about balance.
We will happily tell you that a gluten-free noodle ‘tastes so much like the real thing, you’ll never know the difference,’ and that ‘most things actually taste better steamed and unseasoned.’ But believe me, we’ve rehearsed that. We’ve spent many meals forcing down chewy, spongey noodles with flavor akin to cardboard, and a fair few fillets o’ fish you wouldn’t serve to your cat, in the name of health.
Don’t get me wrong - I subscribe to a fair amount of it. Search my cupboard, and you’ll find a lot of acronyms. GF, DF and Non-GMO feature prevalently as elements on the periodic table that is my diet. It’s hard not to join in. It’s hard to be the only person ordering a steak in a vast sea of herbivores, staring at you, wishing they’d had a chance to adopt the cow you’re eating, before it made its fateful journey to your plate.
I won’t go totally 'celebrity' on you and pretend my go-to snack is an In ’n Out burger with a cupcake chaser (they’re lying, by the way), but, dammit, if I'm going to go all California-clean, it has to taste good.
Food and flavor mean a lot to me, and sacrificing them is not an option. No, I won't do a big bowl of noodles on the reg (because, well, my out-of-whack immune system can't handle it), but I will do a big bowl of zucchini noodles mixed with every other green vegetable I can get my hands on, top it with salmon, and tell myself 'it tastes just like the real thing.'
But it's so damn good anyway.
Using a spiralizer, turn your zucchini into noodles and combine them with the tomato, cucumber, avocado and mustard greens in a large bowl.
Pour over your lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil and toss the ingredients, so that everything is well coated. Season the salad with salt and pepper.
Season your salmon fillet with salt and pepper and heat your pan to medium-high heat, adding the remaining olive oil. Cook the fish 3-4 minutes per side. I like mine a little under, so I keep it to 3, but if you like your fish cooked through, do the full 4 minutes.
As it's a cold salad, I let the fish come to room temp before placing it on top, but you can certainly eat it warm over the 'noodles' if you prefer.
Once you've added your salmon, sprinkle on a few pumpkin seeds and voila! You're basically eating a big bowl of pasta with meat sauce.
No, you're not.
But I'm pretty sure you'll love it anyway.
*If it's just me, I'll usually ask the fishmonger to cut me a fillet of salmon that weighs in at just over a 1/4 lb, from the thickest part of the fish. Often you'll find precut fillets in the fish department that weigh in at about 5-6oz.
Spice up that Melon Salad with just a hint of Thai Chili.
As we're nearing the end of summer, i find myself desperately craving every last bit of sunny sweetness the season has to offer. As much as I look forward to warming dishes prepared with winter citrus, apples and pears, i want to taste summer for just a little bit longer.
Labor Day was the perfect excuse to whip up a dish that satisfied that exact craving, and melon salad was what my sun-soaked heart desired.
Did I reinvent the wheel with this one? Hardly. If you've never had a watermelon, feta and mint salad, you haven't lived! However, the addition of slow-burn, mouth-on-pleasant-fire, Thai chili, really sends it over the top. So, yeah, wheel reinvented...ish.
In a small bowl, combine the juice of three limes, the sliced chilies and chopped mint.
In a large bowl, combine all three melons and pour over the lime and chili dressing. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, allowing the melon to soak up some of that sweet and spicy juice.
Before serving, toss in the cubed feta, garnish with additional fresh mint and season with a little flakey sea salt.
It's spicy, it's sweet, it's cooling and it burns so good. This old stand-by just got a little pep in it's step, and is pushing all my summer-lovin' buttons.
*Note; When buying feta cheese, look for the authentic, Greek, sheep's milk kind, sold in brine. The flavor can't be beat!