Friday, April 29, 2011

Browned Butter Brownies

No slumber party with my nephew is complete without a baking adventure in my kitchen. The Little Chef came over the other night while his parents went out for their anniversary dinner, and when I presented him with a few different scrumptious-looking goodies on my To Bake list, he naturally chose the most decadent option. (Is this kid related to me or what?) I’d had my eye on these Browned Butter Brownies for quite some time, and I was really happy for an excuse to make them with my little buddy.

These brownies were the cover recipe in the February 2011 issue of Bon Appetit. They are the creation of Alice Medrich, whose masterful book Bittersweet continues to give me great insight and understanding when it comes to working with chocolate. This recipe is similar to her Best Cocoa Brownies in Bittersweet, as both recipes produce a brownie with the most incredible soft texture and a crisp candylike crust on top. In this sublime version, the butter is cooked to a speckled brown before being blended with the cocoa and the rest of the ingredients. This simple-yet-ingenius step imparts a layer of fabulous nuttiness that dances perfectly in tandem with the richness of the cocoa.

As the Little Chef and I measured out dry ingredients and got to work browning the butter, I told him a story about my first year in New York when I cooked for a family in exchange for room and board. During my interview with them, I informed them that I had years of cooking experience, having trailed my mom in the kitchen since I was six years old. I made a point of telling them I had been occasionally hired to make cakes when I was in college and had actually catered post-concert receptions for friends. I was elated when I got the job.

Now I’m not sure what kind of cooks they’d had before I moved in because it took them a while to trust me in the kitchen. Eventually I won them over, but it was a long process that began with what I refer to as the Brownie Mix Incident.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Esalen Kale Salad Cravings

I’m home! I’ve had a whirlwind three weeks in the Southeast region of the U.S. while touring with HCJ and his big band, and it’s been a genuine thrill to be part of it all. There’s still more to come with concerts in New Jersey and Connecticut next week plus a whole week in Boston in late April, but I’m grateful for a week at home to catch up with friends and family. I'm also having some much needed time in my kitchen, and upon arriving home after three weeks away, I immediately headed to my local health food store to buy a humongous bunch of kale. I’d been craving bitter greens for weeks, and I couldn’t wait to make this Esalen Kale Salad.

My friend Marjorie had first told me about this particular recipe from the Esalen Cookbook around the time I’d posted my take on the City Bakery kale salad last fall. My raw kale bowl—with its Italian flavor profile featuring a lemony olive oil dressing while punched up with toasted breadcrumbs and grated pecorino cheese—was something I made countless times last fall. But I was intrigued by Marjorie’s salad that combined kale ribbons and marinated red onion slivers with thin mushroom slices and avocado cubes, all bound together by a lemon-soy dressing and a liberal sprinkling of toasted crunchy pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds. This recipe came up again in a recent conversation and I asked Marjorie to send it to me, which she did on the first day of the HCJ tour when I arrived in Thackerville, Oklahoma.

Now to give you a little context for why I’ve been totally obsessed with making this recipe, allow me to set the scene for you. In a place like Las Vegas, there are many location-themed grand casinos such as The Paris, The Venetian, and The New York New York, all standing proudly along the main strip. However, at the Winstar Casino in Thackerville, all of these international locales were combined under one roof to rather incongruous effect. As you entered the casino from the hotel, the signs and décor screamed LONDON as you walked past replicas of Big Ben and London Bridge. After walking past 50 feet of slot machines, you could pass under a big archway and suddenly find yourself in “Paris” with a mock Eiffel Tower. Another 50 feet of slot machines and an archway later, the Coliseum in “Rome” loomed large, and so on and so forth.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Memorable Meals On The Road

One of the most fun things about going on tour is finding culinary inspiration from new sources. Though I don't have kitchen access while on the road, I am definitely taking notes and gathering ideas for when I can play in my own kitchen again. Our touring schedule has been rather compressed as we’re traveling a lot and performing in new towns practically every day, but I have made a concerted effort to carve out a little time for myself, if only to find a fun place for lunch. My solo dining experiences are more enjoyable knowing that I can at least share some of these meals with appreciative friends in photo form, if nothing else.

It was not a promising start as the Winstar Casino in Thackerville, OK left a lot to be desired in the culinary department, as I mentioned in the previous post. However, the next day I had a few hours in Austin which more than made up for it. This roasted poblano and cheese tamale at La Condessa was one of the best tamales I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. It was steamed to tender perfection and enhanced only by the avocado crema and kicky salsa, and I savored every bite.

I was tempted to order a second tamale, but I’m happy that I saved room for dessert instead. I’ve never tasted anything quite like this goat cheesecake with roasted pineapple cubes and graham cracker shortbread crumbles, and it was accompanied by a saffron crème anglaise that truly made my head spin.

I had the good fortune to be steered in the direction of Cochon in New Orleans, a delightful restaurant in the Warehouse District recommended by friends who live in town as well as by HCJ himself. Lunch began with a fricassee of roasted wild mushrooms served over a cheese grits cake and topped with a perfectly poached egg. I’m a total sucker for anything with a poached egg on it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Asparagus Soup Daydreams

Greetings from a tour bus somewhere in the middle of northern Texas! I’ve just begun a 3-week concert tour of the Southeast with Harry Connick Jr. and his big band, and I’m thrilled to be the “string boss” on the road with these guys. I’m sure I’ll have lots of stories by the end of the tour, musically or otherwise, and there are some great food cities on our itinerary, including Austin and New Orleans. However, I think it’s fair to say that our first stop in Thackerville, Oklahoma falls into the Culinary Wasteland category more than anything. In fact, the food options there were so abysmal that I made a dinner out of Airborne tablets dissolved in water and a ginger chocolate bar as my mind wandered back to the Asparagus Soup I’d made on Wednesday before I left town. Sometimes a daydream has to be enough to sustain you.

This recipe comes from Carla Hall, one of my all-time favorite contestants on Top Chef. You have to love someone who cooks from the heart the way she clearly does, and in watching her compete in both Season 5 and now Top Chef All-Stars, I’ve often wished that I could eat Carla’s food. I was delighted to find her asparagus soup recipe in the March issue of Food&Wine magazine.

Unlike the slow-simmering soups associated with cold winter months, this bright verdant soup comes together in a snap. After doing a quick sauté of onion and asparagus pieces, the veggies are simmered in broth until they lose their bite and then pureed in a blender till silky smooth. A glug of cream turns the soup even more velvety, and fresh tarragon adds a beguiling note.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Where I've Been...

Each new year begins with verve and the determination to tackle the world. In setting new goals for the year, I always have an earnest desire to write/play/cook/exercise/blog/ photograph/organize more. And eat more vegetables. I’m consistent in my goals, if nothing else.

I’ve been good with practicing and exercising consistently and I am eating more vegetables than ever, but I’ve had a hard time blogging in recent months. Perhaps you’ve noticed, if you’re someone who regularly checks this blog. Part of it is that life exploded after the big “60 Minutes: Endless Memory” story came out in December, and it’s taken me this many weeks to regain my equilibrium and discover what my new “normal” is as I’m being stretched in all sorts of different directions these days.

The other factor in my non-blogging is that much of my energy has been devoted to riding a major health&fitness kick the past few months, growing stronger and more confident while losing nearly fifty pounds in the process. I feel more comfortable in my skin than ever before, easily able to run five miles at a stretch or bound up the dozen flights of stairs to my apartment if I feel like it. I’m thrilled beyond belief that I can finally fit into clothes that have hung in my closet, unworn, since I was in my late twenties. I’m sitting on a plane while writing this, thinking how strange it was to haul my 48-pound suitcase onto the scale this morning, tangibly grasping the exact amount of extra weight I had been lugging around for far too long.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Chocolate Malt Ice Cream

For someone who is as passionate about chocolate as I am, it’s a little strange that I actually prefer vanilla ice creams. Perhaps I’d rather enjoy my chocolate in more concentrated form, for I will invariably opt for a vanilla-based ice cream when given a choice. However, I just made a decadent Chocolate Malt Ice Cream this weekend that could make me a chocolate ice cream convert.

This malt ice cream has been in the works for a while, ever since Cenovia wanted me to make it for our Christmas dinner party. Unfortunately, my Christmas version was a little sub par as real malt powder is much harder to come by than I would have guessed, considering that it was once ubiquitous in every suburban grocery store ice cream section. After scouring grocery stores in both Manhattan and New Jersey with nary a jar of Carnation malted milk mix to be found, I resorted to using Ovaltine in that Christmas batch of ice cream. It was rather lackluster, missing the bold toasty malt flavor I was hoping for.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Cornmeal Arugula Soup

Having been a hardcore night owl for most of my life, it’s fair to say that I do not respond well when my phone rings before 10 a.m. However, I totally didn’t mind yesterday’s 8:15 a.m. phone call informing me that my morning rehearsal had been cancelled due to the intense blizzard conditions. Hooray! I felt like a little kid being given a snow day, but rather than going sledding in the park followed by steaming mugs of hot chocolate, I took the opportunity to try out a new recipe with ingredients already on hand. Even if I’d had to make a special trip to the grocery store, it would have been worth braving the icy elements to have this rustic warming Cornmeal Arugula Soup for lunch.

You may be asking what the words “cornmeal”, “arugula” and “soup” are all doing together in the same recipe. Think of this as a very loose polenta that’s been prepared with much higher than usual ratio of liquid to coarse-grained cornmeal. Polenta is one of my favorite comfort foods, and it makes a beautiful golden side dish when it is finished simply with a rich bit of cheese stirred in. But I love the way it takes center stage in this recipe when amplified with a healthy dose of greens.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Orange Fennel Salad

I don’t know about you but I’m ready for a little sunshine right about now. While Christmastime in New York is one of my favorite stretches of the year, I always feel very much in touch with my California roots around mid-January, ready for a break from the dreary winter weather. Unfortunately I’m not able to leave town at this time, and I’m more than just a little bit jealous of my friends who have plotted various escapes to Hawaii and other tropical climes. (You know who you are.) Since I have no beach vacation in my immediate future, I’ll have to get my sunshine in citrus form. My Orange Fennel Salad is almost as refreshing as a sunny holiday. Almost.

I love the wide variety of citrus fruits available at this time of year, and I always have a bowl of little clementines on my table. Floral Meyer lemons practically beg to be incorporated into decadent desserts, and I’ve been enjoying the most succulent ruby red grapefruits every morning. I’ve gone wild about these rosy Cara Cara oranges, also known as red navel oranges, and their pinkish-orange flesh is unbelievably sweet with hints of raspberry and cherry. Blood oranges may look like regular navel oranges on the outside, but their ordinary looking peels belie the brilliant purple fruit within.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Baked Egg Custard With Gruyere and Chives

I’m at my table looking out the window as I type, happily tucked inside my cozy apartment on this snowy day. The snowflakes are a riot of white confetti, falling fast and furious while buffeted by the wind. It’s a perfect day for something warm and comforting, preferably a dish that involves melted cheese and/or bacon. How about a Baked Egg Custard with Gruyere and Chives, with a little bacon on the side just for kicks? Yeah, I knew you’d like that.

I’m still flying high from New Year’s Day, on which the One-Year Plan Club gathered for our annual January 1st celebration. I’ve written more extensively in the past about the OYPC here and here. In short, for nearly a decade now this special group of friends and I have gathered each January 1st to take stock of the year gone by and map out our goals for the upcoming year. There was much to celebrate as many of us had a banner 2010, and everyone was particularly focused in his or her goals for this year, as though we’d definitely entered a more mature new chapter in the life of the OYPC. I am truly inspired by these friends, by their honesty and vulnerability as well as their determination to live their lives more fully as they realize their creative and professional dreams.

It was a brilliant sunny day, which seemed like a portent of good things to come in 2011. I was thrilled to host my first sit-down meal for EIGHT, a small triumph in my not-so-large apartment. I couldn’t have been happier to have everyone gathered around the table in my sun-drenched living room.