Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Spring Renewal: Slow-roasted Salmon in Lemony Yogurt Sauce with Sugar Snap Peas & Shaved Pecorino Salad

It is Springtime in San Francisco.

A time for rebirth, renewal.

Young slender green shoots are sprouting everywhere.

The sycamore trees at the front of our apartment complex that have spent an entire autumn and winter looking barren and forlorn are springing into life again with tender young leaves.

Ah if only our tired human bodies would undergo the natural metamorphosis that transforms winter's ungainly caterpillar into spring's floating butterfly.

Alas, Nature has cruelly dealt us a bad hand by making us the world's most self-conscious, metabolically-challenged creatures. I mean, a snake doesn't look at itself in the mirror & say "Jeez, this skin is looking a little ragged; better head to Sephora & find a good exfoliator."

Nope, without so much as a thought of its sex appeal or a glance at its reflection in the nearest waterhole, your average reptile is miraculously relieved of its dry scaly skin by Mother Nature; while humans, if we're lucky, have to head to the nearest health spa for a minimum 6 weeks of intensive beauty boot camp just to shed five lbs. after punishing ourselves with days of the most pitiless, rigorous self-scrutiny in every surface that happens to reflect our sorry images. (I shudder to think of the extremes taken for shedding some of that wrinkly skin!).

Let's face it: we've been rooked!

However, Hope (with all its capital H, Emily Dickinson-inflected beauty)  springs eternal in the human breast... and with the intent of taking over where Nature neglectfully left off---I offer this overture to that time-honored Spring tradition of getting our bodies into some semblance of condition for bikini season. A lovely meal chockfull of skin-enhancing, body nourishing, soul-stirring yummy goodness with the King of Spring in the starring role.

Pacific King Salmon is truly royal... get it wild and whilst in season , if you can. The controversy about eating farmed versus wild salmon is complex, and reports available in the media, online, and in scientific publications often seem contradictory. Issues fall into three main categories: environmental concerns, contamination, and omega-3 fatty acid levels in edible portions. The good news is both wild and farmed salmon have low levels of mercury, PCBs, and other contaminants. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are derived from plants (algae, leaves, grass).

Here's a quick salmon primer:

In wild salmon, the amount and type of omega-3s found are based on the algae and plankton found in their diet. In farmed salmon, the omega-3 levels are dependent on what type of feed they eat, which is made from plants, grains, and fishmeal.  Farmed salmon fillets contain as many grams of omega-3 fatty acids as wild salmon because farmed salmon are fattier than wild salmon. New feeds are being developed with less fishmeal in them and more protein derived from grains and oilseeds, such as soybeans. Fish oil is also being partially replaced with plant-derived oils.

In general, the more plant-based ingredients, the lower the level of long-chain omega-3 fats in the salmon. However, fish are fed feeds containing enough fish oil to maintain omega-3 fatty acid levels equivalent or higher than most wild fish. Health professionals recommend that we increase our intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients for nervous system, heart, and brain health. Fish, especially oily fish such as salmon, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Those of particular importance are alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentacenoic acid, docosopentaenoic acid, and docosahexaenoic acid. Research has shown that eicosapentacenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid in seafood provide health benefits for the developing fetus, infants, and also for adults.

Wild salmon is the preferred choice, but its availability is limited and seasonal. I'm sure it would be preferable if we could all go up to some lovely stream where they are spawning and catch them bare-handed, like bears do, but this is not always possible, even for the most conscientious eater, so we have farmed salmon, and much of it is quite good.

According to The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (a globally trusted resource for those concerned about sustainable seafood practices), virtually all Atlantic salmon is now farmed rather than wild-caught, anyway. Atlantic salmon farmed in closed tanks is a "Best Choice." Closed tanks often have less effluent, disease, escapes and habitat impacts than other aquaculture systems.  Currently, only 0.1% of farmed Atlantic salmon is farmed in closed tanks. These sources will be labelled as "land-based" or "tank-based" salmon. Atlantic salmon farmed in Maine and Verlasso® and Blue Circle® brands are "Good Alternatives." These sources have reduced some of the impacts that typically occur when salmon is farmed in net pens. Atlantic salmon farmed in Canada, Scotland, Chile (excluding Verlasso® brand) and Norway (excluding Blue Circle® brand) is on the "Avoid" list.

About 60% of Chinook salmon is farmed. Chinook salmon caught in Alaska, farmed in New Zealand and farmed in closed tanks is a "Best Choice." In Alaska, management of salmon fisheries is highly effective. In New Zealand, the industry operates on a small scale and has few environmental impacts. Closed tanks often have less effluent, disease, escapes and habitat impacts than other aquaculture systems. Chinook salmon caught in Washington's Puget Sound is on the "Avoid" list because a significant portion of the catch is from stocks that are threatened. All sources of Chinook salmon from California, Oregon, and Washington (other than from Puget Sound) are "Good Alternatives." The fisheries are managed to avoid endangered or threatened stocks as much as possible. However, most fisheries undoubtedly impact these at-risk stocks, and Seafood Watch considers this a high concern. Some sources of Chinook salmon are certified sustainable to the standard of the Marine Stewardship Council.

Now that you are experts, you can wow (or annoy) your local fishmongers with your knowledge. Be ye mindful and fishify! Fresh salmon is a glorious and flavorful way to springboard into healthful dietary habits, and so pretty too. There are a variety of ways to serve it, here's one:

Spring Renewal: Slow-roasted Salmon in Lemony Yogurt Sauce with Fresh Sugar Snap Peas And Shaved Pecorino Salad


This recipe will serve 4 relatively fit hopeful diners or 8 frantic, worried dieters.
It's really an excellent dish for people who don't usually enjoy fish because the slow-roasting & the marinade tame the volatile oils in the salmon, avoiding the "fishy" smell that can make this healthy delicious protein so unappealing to the uninitiated.

Pitted olives are fine to use in the salad, but I prefer mine to be less handled by a grocer, so I use whole olives. I like releasing the tender meat from the pit with the perfect tools for the job - my lips and teeth... so primal. The Arabequina olives I chose are meaty, buttery, highly aromatic... bringing you a taste of the Mediterranean with every bite, but there are other tongue-pleasing varietals. 
Almost every supermarket here in the U.S. has a huge variety of olives from oil-cured to brined to seasoned... experiment, see what you like. 

You will need to trim the sugar snap peas, here's how:  Using a paring knife, with the inside curve of the pod facing you, sever the top of the pea and pull off the tough string that runs along the length of the pod. (Sometimes stores have already trimmed the string.) It’s not necessary to remove the other end, though you can if you’d like. (This also works for snow peas.) You can also, of course, avoid the pea pod trimming altogether and substitute haricot verts (small young green beans), fava beans, or even asparagus. It's your kitchen... you reign supreme. I just like the contrast of the sweet pea with the salty Pecorino. 


For the salmon:

4 six oz. skinless center-cut salmon fillets, preferably wild king salmon
1 tsp. madras curry powder, or any other tumeric-based seasoning
1 Tbs. olive oil
freshly ground salt & pepper, to taste (I keep a basalt-like hunk of Pink Himalayan Sea Salt with its own grater on hand at all times...)

For the sauce:

1 cup Greek-style yogurt (or plain yogurt that has been strained in the fridge for at least 3 hours and brought to room temperature)
1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded & coarsely chopped
1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1 lemon, juiced and zested (Meyer's lemons are the best, a cross between orange & lemon in flavor)
1 tsp. chopped chives
1 tsp. chopped flat leaf parsley
1 Tbs. mint leaves, finely chopped
freshly ground salt and pepper, to taste

For the snap peas:

4 cups fresh sugar snap peas, trimmed
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (preferably Meyers lemons, about 3 or 4)
1 shallot, finely minced (you can use garlic, if you prefer)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped leaves only
4 oz. thinly shaved pecorino romano or other sharp tasting cheese; parmigiano-reggiano works fine, too, if you prefer something mellower

1/2 cup of black olives (I used meaty Arabequina olives, but use what you like)
1/2 pint of small tomatoes (grape or cherry), sliced in half  
2 cups fresh baby arugula leaves (optional)


Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Place salmon on a cutting board, remove any pin bones with a tweezer. Whisk olive oil and curry powder together in a small bowl. Rub mixture all over the surface of each fillet. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Set aside.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. While water is heating, fill a large bowl with equal parts ice and water. Set aside. When pot reaches the boil, add snap peas and cook until tender 2-3 minutes. Drain peas and add to bowl of ice water. Drain again. Pat dry with paper towel. Place peas in large shallow serving bowl; set aside. (Snap peas can be prepared to this point 1 day ahead, if desired). In a small bowl, combine lemon juice, garlic, olive oil whisking until well combined and an emulsion forms. Pour dressing over snap peas toss well. Sprinkle in cheese, parsley, tomatoes, olives; toss lightly. When ready to serve, add arugula,  gently folding ingredients into one another. 

Cook salmon:

Place curry marinated salmon fillets on a large lightly oiled oven-proof non-stick pan. Do not overcrowd pan or salmon will steam not roast. Use 2 small pans if you do not have 1 large enough to accommodate all the fillets. Roast salmon without disturbing for 10 minutes then with a sturdy spatula carefully turn salmon over & roast 10 minutes more. Remove from oven and serve with a dollop of the lemony yogurt sauce on top. Serving additional sauce at the table, if desired (recipe for lemony sauce follows).

While the salmon roasts, make the sauce. Add all the ingredients for the sauce except the lemon zest into a food processor or blender and puree until smooth & creamy about 30 seconds to a minute. Place in serving bowl, stir in lemon zest, taste to adjust seasoning, adding pepper to taste. Serve on the side with fish. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead but should be brought to room temperature before serving).

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

For The Lazy Gourmet: Wild Alaskan Halibut "En Papillote" with Truffled Tarragon Butter, Roasted Asparagus, Yam "Gratin"

“The quality of life is determined by its activities.” ~ Aristotle

Far too often I hear friends say they never have the time or energy to cook for themselves or their families which I think is a terrible shame. Eating is something we do everyday. The fact is we must eat to survive. Though, personally, I prefer thinking of survival as a reason to eat - the so(u)l(e) purpose of life is to cast a light on good eating (but I am terribly biased, as well as ridiculously unreasonable). 
The London Times once did a few quick calculations and reported that the average person spends 6 years and ten months eating in his or her 70 year life time. That's approximately 3 681 641.36 minutes (YEP, over 3 MILLION minutes) or 1/10 of the average lifespan spent in this activity, why fill it up with foods generated by ConAgra and increase their already huge coffers?
At the risk of sounding like a Stepford Wife (remember them? *shudders*), cooking can be F-U-N!!! You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to luxuriate in a good meal shared, even if only once a millennium. And yes, I know... I know.... in this go, Go, GO!!! day and age, spending such time together seems to have become so rare that it is a luxury. However, nothing is more convivial than sitting around the dinner table, eating a delicious meal and enjoying each other's company. The family that dines together shines together (yes... I know... I know... but you catch my drift - make the time. It's your life - live it, damnit!). High quality ingredients cooked with very little effort make for very satisfying meals. These are the kind of meals I find myself making more and more lately. In fact, why not make it a regular feature of this column? Recipes with modest effort and maximal flavor. I call them cooking the Lazy Gourmet Way. 

Defining a "Lazy Gourmet" meal gets a little tricky because certain meals require minimal effort but a few hours of time (braises, large cuts of roasts etc.); other meals require minimal cook time but much more prep work and/or ingredients (stir-frys, salads, tartares, etc.) How to choose, how to choose? I finally decided that a "lazy gourmet" entree must have the finest ingredients you can afford, not much more than a handful of them (10 max), minimal prep, minimal cookware and take no longer than 20 minutes from start to finish, the maximal amount of time a starving woman (or man) can bear to wait before sinking their teeth into their nearest and dearest.

Folks, it doesn't get any yummier than this for a light, simple, elegant meal. Seriously, in the time it takes to order in a meal, you could have something fresh and delicious that will impress anyone for a special occasion, or just a nice treat for yourself. You deserve a break today and it sure as hell should NOT be from McDonalds!
For those of you less inclined to using those little heat-emitting appliances known as ovens, this meal (sans aluminum foil, unless you are looking to rival the Large Hadron Collider in generating a possible worldwide cataclysmic event horizon, ending all life on earth as we know it) could also be easily adapted for the microwave by wrapping the ingredients in paper towels, Glad plastic sandwich bags, or any microwave-safe plastic wrap.
I am going to make it even easier by providing little more than a basic outline in pictures. You get to color between the lines or outside the lines of this "recipe" yourself. With only about 20 minutes of active cooking time, you will have a meal that is delicious, nutritious and looks pretty on your plate! Now THAT is what I mean by quality of life and I bet good old Aristotle would agree.
Cooking "en papillote" is a classical cooking method in which you seal the food in a pouch and bake. The food essentially steams in the oven in its own juices, though you can add ingredients to flavor the food as I will here with just a few splashes of flavored liquids, herbs and aromatics. Various cultures use grape leaves, banana leaves, cornhusks, parchment paper, and other materials to encase tender, mild foods, which then take on the character of the seasonings they are bathed in. 
The keys to the technique are: 1) use fresh ingredients; and 2) preparation or mise-en-place which is very simple. Instead of parchment paper which is the traditional European method, I will use aluminum foil to wrap the fish, not as pretty, but very easy to do. It works beautifully with fish. My husband has a bit of cooked fish phobia, far too many Mrs. Paul's fish sticks were served to him during his formative years, putting him off the slightest whiff of "fishiness". While he has always adored sushi and sashimi for its pure pristine silken unctuousness, getting him to eat cooked fish has been a challenge, but the moist heat of the pouch keeps the fish's volatile oils from diffusing in the air. It really is the perfect way to foil the finicky eater's antipathy to all things cooked that are piscine. 
Let's talk a little bit about mise en place. When you're in a hurry to get dinner on the table, it's tempting to just turn on the stove and start cooking. But you'll save time in the long run if you spend a few minutes getting organized. Professional chefs call this mise en place, which literally means "put in place."
Mise en place is the secret that enables a restaurant to take your order and, ten minutes later, serve your meal fresh and piping hot. It all boils down to advance preparation. In a professional kitchen, the carrots are peeled, sliced and blanched. The stocks and sauces are made, the garlic is chopped, the meat is marinated and the water is boiling for the pasta. All that's left to be done is cook the meal. Once the prep work is done, the dish comes together easily. This concept translates well into the home kitchen. No matter how simple the recipe, taking time to organize your equipment and prep the ingredients will streamline the cooking process. That way, you won't be chopping the parsley for the sauce while the steaks burn, or rummaging around for the cheese grater (and the cheese) while the pasta overcooks. If you're preparing several dishes at once, mise en place is essential to prevent last-minute chaos in the kitchen.
Before you start chopping and dicing, read the recipe through twice to familiarize yourself with all the steps. The list of ingredients specifies simple prep work, such as zesting the lemons or melting the butter. The directions alert you to any tasks that must be done well in advance, such as chilling sugar cookie dough before rolling it out.

Wild Alaskan Halibut "En Papillote" with Truffled Tarragon Butter, Roasted Asparagus, Yam "Gratin"


I have given directions for microwaving everything, but really nothing brings out the sweet caramelized goodness of veggies like roasting them in the oven & it really takes very little effort, plus you can cook everything into a regular oven at the same time. Not so when microwaving. Not only is it tastier to roast but it also retains the vegetables nutrients. The small amount of  fat actually helps your body absorb vitamins and minerals more effectively.

Substitute any fish of your choice for the halibut. The only fish I wouldn't use is a dense steak fish like tuna. Fresh tuna is far better eaten seared. Preferably rare. Well done tuna is good only between slices of bread after being mashed with mayonnaise.  
Truffle Salt can be found in specialty markets that purvey yummy grub or "upscale" supermarkets like Whole Foods. Yes, it is expensive (about $20 per 3.5 oz ), but a little goes a long way and it will last you for at least a year. It's unbelievable in mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs, macaroni & cheese or just a little cappellini, parmigiano reggiano (parmesan cheese) & olive oil. Open the jar and breathe it in: earthy, musty, intoxicating. Highly prized white (or black) truffles are delicately blended with sea salt to bring rich umami to your cooking and dining. Just a small pinch is all it takes to impart flavor
Pure decadence was never so affordable.

Here are the ingredients, you can determine the quantity of each depending on how many people you wish to serve.

  • Vegetable broth, a couple of splashes
  • Dry white wine (or beer), preferably a couple of splashes from your own glass
  • Fresh Tarragon, a few sprigs, stripped and chopped
  • Halibut fillets (any white fish will do. Salmon and chicken also works nicely here. Times need to be adjusted for thickness of fillets. Generally if you can smell it, it's done, but allow about 15 minutes for a 1-1/2 inch tick fish fillet and 20 minutes for a chicken breast.)
  • Truffle salt (plain sea salt is fine) and freshly cracked pepper, to taste.
  • One large shallot, finely diced ( finely diced red onion and a minced garlic clove can be substituted for the shallot)
  • One fresh lemon, a couple of squeezes per fillet for seasoning the fish.
  • One bunch of fresh asparagus, tough ends snapped off (you can substitute any veggie you like obviously. Though for roasting nothing beats asparagus, seasoned with a bit of truffle salt, black pepper and olive oil)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, enough to drizzle over the fillets & asparagus
  • Butter, 4 Tablespoons, unsalted
  • 1/4 cup of half & half or heavy cream with a 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract added and well combined
  • Sweet potato, cooked (one per person), roasted for an hour in a hot oven or microwaved for 15 minutes on high and sliced into coins
  • Parmigiano reggiano, for grating over asparagus & yams.
  • Aluminum foil, if using oven; Plastic wrap or baggies, if using the microwave
  • Preheated oven, 450 degrees
  • Hungry people you love

Assemble all of your ingredients (your mise-en-place, as the pros say), like so:


The Yams:
  • Preheat your oven at 450 degrees
  • Roast or microwave your sweet potatoes or yams (or other tuberous veggies) until done. (Can be roasted well ahead of time up until the day before).
  • Slice into 1/2 inch thick rounds and arrange them in either a roasting pan or heavy skillet.
  • Season with truffle salt & pepper, pour half & half/vanilla mixture over it & a couple of tablespoons of butter, cut into small dice & dabbed evenly over the potatoes.
  • Then set aside, while you prepare the fish and roast the asparagus.

The Fish: 

  • Place the fillets in a little pouch of their own, using either aluminum foil for baking or plastic wrap (or baggies) if you plan to microwave your fish or poultry.
  • Season the protein with truffle salt & freshly ground pepper to taste.
  • Add the aromatics: shallots, splashes of lemon juice, wine, fresh tarragon, a drizzle of olive & a 1/2 TBSP of butter per packet

  • Then wrap the little bundle up & pop into the middle rack of your preheated oven for about 15 minutes for a 1-1/2 inch thick fillet (Or about 3 minutes if microwaving. Remember to seal the baggie but leave a little room for air to escape; venting the baggie by poking a little slit through the top & placing the fish packet on a microwave-safe dish.)

The Asparagus:
  • Now prepare the asparagus by lining a shallow baking sheet with aluminum foil and seasoning with salt, pepper, fresh juice quickly squeezed from a lemon & tossing it all with extra virgin olive oil using your hands which are the best tool for tossing veggies and salads ever invented!

  • Add the asparagus and the yams to the top rack of the oven. Roasting the asparagus for about 7 minutes & the yams for about 15 minutes. (Or microwave them instead on a microwave-safe dish for 2 minutes after the fish is done).
  • The asparagus will be done before the fish. Remove them when you can smell them (about 7-10 minutes, depending on thickness of stalk) then grate a little parmigiano-reggiano over them, dusting them lightly.

When the fish is done, remove it from the oven, set the oven on broil, dust the yams with a little bit of the parmigiano reggiano and cook the yams under the broiler for a minute until they are nicely browned.

Arrange on a plate prettily and  eat it!
Will serve four very lucky-to-be-related-to-you family members. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Curried Cauliflower Soup & Sympathy: A Cure For What Ails You

"To cut with a sharp knife a bright green watermelon on a big scarlet plate of a summer afternoon. Ah, is this not happiness?... The philosopher ought to be ashamed . . . ashamed that he wears spectacles, has no appetite, is often distressed in mind and heart, and is entirely unconscious of the fun in life."

 "Happiness is just a matter of digestion."

~Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

Certain foods promise solace as much as they provide nourishment. Cream of tomato soup and a bit of toasted cheesy bread is panacea for what ails the many. The mechanisms behind these attachments are likely more psychological than they are physical, but if one believes that the mind controls matter, feeding that matter the baked macaroni and cheese that the mind associates with mental health and happiness is a good idea. Sustenance (like happiness) is a highly personal concern. Culture and nature are determinants. One man's grits is another man's dirt. Now how these associations formulate is still a question for neuroscience and psychology to explore, but a study conducted by Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, shows how comfort foods may have a certain social utility for subjects with positive childhood memories, fulfilling their cognitive and emotional needs for "belongingness".

There seem to be implications for the social nature of such food preferences. The choices vary according to cultural divides, but align themselves rather neatly in subsets within certain demographic patterns. The study revealed younger people and women prefer snack foods to soothe their soulful woes, whereas middle-aged/older men seek heartier, heavier fare such as soups, stews, roast beasts and casseroles. The road to consolation has many on-ramps. However, much as I devote myself to conjuring my roasts and boils, I find my path off-road when it comes to the question of "comfort foods".

Happiness is a state of mind. It is an intrinsic quality/characteristic, not to be found outside of one's innerworld. One can live in abject poverty, be born without limbs, i.e. experience any of innumerable adverse conditions, yet still manage to find that seed of joy flourishing within oneself. Or conversely, one can live in relative comfort and be miserable. Not everyone is wired with receptors for all the frequencies and bandwidths that Happiness (with its capital H) emits. Though I personally like to believe we're all only a Planck length away from Happiness at any given time. Trite? Cliche? Mayhaps, but true and worth repeating since I find current society increasingly composed of perpetual toddlers, throwing tantrums and casting blame upon everyone and everything other than themselves. In fact, the pursuit of Happiness is now considered nothing more than banal bourgeoise servitude, a cog in the capitalistic machine. So wrong-minded a stance. Whining has now become our national pastime, instead. With this much I can agree: Happiness has nothing to do with materialism or consumerism.   "Things" do not make you happy. Not even delicious things. Only your mindset can create an environment in which to flourish in your "happy" place, if you learn to divorce yourself from the idea of a particular reality being a causal factor for delight. Circumstances may inform us, but they do not define us. Our psyches defy such boundaries. So do our hearts. 

Proust's bite of madeleine may have transported him back to a place in time where he was more carefree, in more beloved company, but it is not in itself an indelible vehicle for happiness. At least, not for me. Whilst I understand intellectually how food is endowed with restorative powers (every morsel you eat affects your body like a dose of medicine, setting off a chain of biochemical reactions acting for either good or ill) the emotional attachments to certain foods is something that eludes me, but - if Professor Gabriel's studies are any indication - that may be because mine wasn't the most nurturing childhood. So I don't have have a go-to dish for when my dol is drum, or when a Trump presidency seems imminent. I don't think of food that way. Although perhaps I should - considering the passion I have for all things culinary. The truth is when I'm sad or depressed, I can't eat or drink. I lose my appetite.

Professor Gabriel's study suggests the fact that I have so few charming idyllic childhood memories to recount, as well as strained relations with my mother, may explain why I have no "comfort foods". Frankly, my mother was never motherly; in fact, she was the opposite: she required nurturing. I was her babysitter for most of my life, though she didn't even have legal custody of me. The person (other than my husband) to take care of me when I was sick was my grandmother before a debilitating stroke took her away from me. I was 12. I was, and still continue to be, highly susceptible to respiratory and ear infections.

I do fondly recall Abuelita brewing up fresh cups of te de tilo, te de manzanilla - lovely flowery teas with fragrant aromas, adding syrupy miel de abeja (honey) and a lip-puckering amount of fresh lemon. Sometimes I'd take those dried tea flowers before they steeped and make sweet little bouquets out of them for my Barbie doll. They were so pretty. Fresh sancochos were also staples in my Abuelita's flu arsenal; although those sancochos were fairly regular fare, not necessarily prepared specifically to cure my many fevers and strep throats. In Puerto Rico, sancocho is considered a rustic dish. It is made with chicken and smoked ham (Sancocho de gallina), top round beef (sancocho), pork feet with chick peas (sancocho de patitas), or beef short ribs with chorizo. There are several versions and every household has its own take on sancocho, but a true Puerto Rican sancocho always calls for corn on the cob, a variety of tubers, guineos, sofrito, and sazón. Other vegetables and flavoring can include celery, carrots, ginger, thyme, parsley, bay leaves, orégano, wine, and rum. The hearty stew is served with a small bowl of rice, pique criollo, tostones, and bread - preferably fresh hot "pan de manteca" slathered in melted butter from the local panaderia. When my abuelita took ill, I was left in my grandfather's sole custody (for about 3 years until he died), and I mostly fended for myself. Grandpa spent most of his time stewed (but not with sancocho). It wasn't his fault, he missed his beloved Clara (my abuelita) and alcohol was his coping mechanism. Lipton Chicken Noodle cup of soups and the occasional can of Progresso Chicken Minestrone were my cold remedies. They were easy for me to heat up when I could barely stand.

Soups are still what I would objectively consider the go-to curative for me. I suppose if I really think about it - anything warm and liquidy is good for an ailing body, the simmering of the aromatics and vegetables in their own juices, water or broth are nutritious and soothing, loosening up congestion and clearing air passages, as well as replenishing the fluids lost from sneezing and wheezing. There is something supremely satisfying in the first sip of soup, the application of cool steel or porcelain to hot lips as warm broth flows from it on your tongue, the savory vaporous fumes wending their way through all those aching cavities crying for relief. It is a loosening, a relaxing, a succumbing to a flavor-filled savior. Of course, I prefer to make soup myself now, except for the occasional ordering in of Thailand's superb Tom Yum Gai and Tom Kha Gai, or an umami-rich Chinese Hot and Sour soup. The Asians have the right idea. The chilies in these soups are truly medicinal. Chili pepper contains an impressive list of plant-derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties.There's an alkaloid compound in them, capsaicin, which gives them strong spicy pungent character. Early laboratory studies on experimental mammals suggest that capsaicin has anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic and anti-diabetic properties. It also found to reduce LDL cholesterol levels in obese individuals.

Fresh chili peppers, red and green, are an excellent source of vitamin-C. 100 g fresh chilies provide about 143.7 µg or about 240% of RDA. Vitamin C is a potent water-soluble antioxidant. It is required for the collagen synthesis inside the human body. Collagen is one of the main structural protein required for maintaining the integrity of blood vessels, skin, organs, and bones. Regular consumption of foods rich in vitamin C helps protect from scurvy, develop resistance against infectious agents (boosts immunity), and scavenge harmful, pro-inflammatory free radicals from the body. They also contain other antioxidants such as vitamin-A, and flavonoids like ß-carotene, a-carotene, lutein, zea-xanthin, and cryptoxanthin. These antioxidant substances in capsicum help protect the body from injurious effects of free radicals generated during stress, diseases, and other physically debilitating conditions. They are high in essential B-complex vitamins - vitamins that we can only derive from food sources. They are chockfull of potassium, iron, magnanese and magnesium, which helps to stabilize heart rate & blood pressure. I won't tout them as a miracle food, but when combined with other aromatics with strong anti-bacterial qualities like garlic, onion, ginger, and a squeeze of something citrus like lime or lemon, you've got a very tasty nutrient-dense germ-combatant. 

Now if you live alone or with a culinary-challenged other, you are not likely to be motivated to cook for yourself, but I am going to suggest a simple soup whose preparation requires minimal muss and fuss. It is the thing that my husband requests most when he is feeling unwell. Cauliflower soup. Silky, savory, yummy. Just olive oil, garlic, ginger, onion, cauliflower, store-bought Thai curry paste and stock. I sauté the aromatics, add cauliflower, let that all sweat together for a bit, add stock, bring it to a boil, lower to a simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, then purée with an immersion blender. Voila!

  Curried Cauliflower Soup 

 The milk-sweet, almost nutty flavor of cauliflower is at its best from December through March when it is in season and most plentiful in your local markets. It has a long history, originally said to hail from Asia Minor, making its way to Turkey and Italy about 600 BC. It garnered a place in French cuisine in the mid-16th century and was subsequently cultivated in Northern Europe and the British Isles. The United States, France, Italy, India, and China are countries that produce significant amounts of cauliflower. Popular in the court of King Louis XIV, the humble cauliflower provides a royal health boost to any diet. A versatile cruciferous vegetable low in calories, full of vitamins and minerals, one cup of it is high in the antioxidant vitamin C, potassium, as well as fiber and folic acid, said to be anti-carcinogenic - giving you lots of nutritional bang for your caloric buck. When pureed, it adds a creamy emulsion that is both palate-coating and hunger-sating. No cream or butter required to satisfy your savor jones. Sabroso!

 I serve it simply when I am using it as a restorative, but you can garnish it with myriad toppings from prosciutto crisps to parmesan tuiles with a dollop of mascarpone and a few snipped chives, or toasted cashews/ macadamia nuts with candied ginger, or a simple garnish of lime wedges and cilantro, or caramelized apples with toasted coconut flakes - this soup is a great base for any topping. Substitute coconut milk for vegetable stock to make this even creamier and more vegan-friendly, or use your favorite homemade/store bought chicken stock for an injection of Jewish mother's penicillin. For the more ascetic among you, plain water works just fine.

 You can leave out the curry paste altogether, if you are seeking something more emotionally-nourishing rather than curative, and swirl in grated cheddar or gruyere. Variations on the theme abound, but the fragrance of sauteed sweet vidalia onions wafting through your home combined with the pungent perfume of Thai curry and earthy cauliflower anointing the air is guaranteed to get all your chi (as well as your gastric juices) flowing. The aroma always sets my nostrils flaring, unable to focus on anything else, usually making my husband and I impatient for it, and we both dig our spoons into the pot - only to taste for doneness, of course!


  • 2 Tbs. olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pot)
  • 1 medium sweet onion, chopped (2 large leeks can be substituted )
  • 1 Tbs. Thai red curry paste (or Madras yellow curry powder, if you like a sweeter, milder flavor)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger root, minced or grated
  • 1 large head cauliflower, leaves removed, chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 cups low-sodium stock (I used chicken, but vegetable stock or plain water are fine)

1. Heat oil in large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, and sauté 5 to 7 minutes, or until soft and golden. Stir in curry paste, ginger, and garlic, and cook 2 minutes more, or until all the aromatics are well-coated in the curry paste & fragrant 2. Add cauliflower to the onion mixture and saute a few minutes more. 3. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer 45 minutes. Cool 10 minutes, then blend with immersion blender in the same pot, or pour carefully in food processor or traditional blender until smooth. Garnish with your toppings of choice and serve! Will serve 6 people who need a little tender loving care.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Sweet Rewards: Pumpkin Caramel Pot De Creme & Tokaji - A Match Made In Heaven

"Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love."
~Song of Solomon

Sweet fruit.  Redolent, intoxicating, its viscous juice coating our palates, stimulating our pleasure centers: injections of dopamine and serotonin course through our brains. No wonder we refer to such sensations as 'heady'. Heat gushes, flushing our skin, affecting our pulse, stirring our impulses. Our inhibitions loosen their ties and kick off their shoes. Is it love, lust, or just a glass of Trockenbeerenauslese? Ahhh... Maybe it's all three combined.

Dessert wines come in all varieties; from nations and cultures all over the planet: their grapes, growing, harvesting, fermentation and bottling practices vary. Fortified or non-fortified. Botrytised on the vine, or picked, laid out in sheets and sun-dried until raisiny, one thing they all have in common is a certain air of decadence, a propensity for ageing well, and an affinity with dessert.

There are classic pairings: chocolate with the black and red fruit of Port, Banyul, or Pedro Ximenex sherry; creme brûlée with the peachy essence, apricot nectar of Eiswein, Inniskillin, or Tokaji; pear or apple tatin with the caramelized but high acidity elixirs of  Sauterne, Gewurtraminer, Auslese, Riesling, and yes the improbably-long, tongue-tripping, syllable-strewn Trockenbeerenauslese. For those who are not fond of confections: dried fruits, toasted nuts, and ripe pungent cheeses pair well with all of the above. It's my preferred way to enjoy them, truth be told. The sweet white wines actually pair well with rich savory dishes as well, such as seared foie gras, lobster, etc. Neither my husband nor I are dessert people, especially not after dinner. Although, on the occasional morning with a jolting cup of java, it is a sweet way for us to start the day. I'll only eat my dessert at breakfast, but I'm more than willing to drink my dessert at night. Stoic of me, I know.

It would be impossible and unreasonable in the small space allotted to attempt to describe the many means and wines to drink your way to serendipity (not to mention deathly dull for all but the most avid oenophile). There are excellent extensive primers on the subject well within your mouse's ability to click, so I'll do my best spare us all the folly of too much information and focus on the most accessible choices instead.

One of my favorite poets and prose stylists, once quite rightly affirmed,

(Eat your chocolates, little girl,
Eat your chocolates!
Believe me, there’s no metaphysics on earth like chocolates,
And all religions put together teach no more than the candy shop.
Eat, dirty little girl, eat!
If only I could eat chocolates with the same truth as you!
But I think and, removing the silver paper that’s tinfoil,
I throw it on the ground, as I’ve thrown out life.)

~ “Tabaqueria” by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa

Nothing goes better with chocolate than Port. Now... Ports are a dessert wine from Portugal, prized and popular, both vintage and tawny (vintage port being grapes grown and harvested in one particular year which has been "declared" by the major houses and it is bottle-aged after spending a short period in wooden casks; tawny port is a blend of different vintages aged in barrels for 20 years, mellowing its fruit, making it less sweet, has no specific date designated to it. Tawny port is cheaper and more readily available for purchase), but it takes decades and decades for a vintage port to mature. I have had a glass of 1900 Dow's whose murky amber syrup was still tongue-gripping, even one hundred years after it was harvested. My husband's birth year 1955 produced magnificent wines from every wine-making region on the globe and truly exceptional vintage port with amazing aging potential. Still considered as drinking well now or having considerable further cellaring. Port will outlive its purchasers, but it is costly and not for the uninitiated palate. I remember serving a glass of 1963 Graham's to my step-monster-in-law. Coughing dramatically, she spit it out, accusing me of serving her Robitussin cough medicine. Needless to say,  I wished I had laced her glass with arsenic.  So perhaps ex-nay on the Port-ay for all but your most discriminating guests.

No, the wine I will recommend is easily quaffable for the virgin or untutored tongue accustomed to drinking Diet Fresca and rum, despite being afflicted with botrytis. Botrytis... Ah Botrytis... - sounds awful doesn't it?

"What did James contract?"
"Botrytis, poor man. It was a slow painful death. Every botry in his system swelled to the size of grapefruits. Terribly sad."

Fortunately for the savvy wino (& James) botrytis (technically called botrytis cinerea) actually refers to noble rot...   its nomenclature no doubt a harbinger of the trouble that the feudal system would eventually experience.

(Here is where I'll launch briefly into fungus and fermentation and horny monks getting drunk. Those of you bored by history can use this time to check your text messages. Come back in five minutes and meet me by the pumpkin caramel pot de creme recipe. I'll be waiting with my favorite red rubber spatula for you).

There are three key stories in the history of botrytis cinerea.  The first dates back to the Hungarian town of Tokaj in 1650 when the local winemaker (also the parish priest), Abbot Maté Szepsi, temporarily fled the town in fear of an Ottoman invasion.  The vintage was therefore delayed and some bunches rotted with botrytis.  The infected grapes were crushed separately and, much to the surprise and delight of the Abbot, turned into an extraordinary wine. Cowardice is its own reward.  The virtues of the mold were duly noted and it wasn’t long before the sweet wines of Tokaj and the surrounding region Tokaji became internationally famous as  “the wine of kings and king of wines.” and is my preferred form of liquid gold.

Moving along to 1775 and to the Rheingau region of Germany, Riesling, arguably the most versatile of grape varieties, was the dominant vine.  A messenger sent to give the order to start picking was delayed by highway bandits.  The messenger arrived two weeks late and found the harvest spoiled, and (being a cheap heartless bastard who was more than willing to have the less fortunate eat what he would never touch) had the rotten fruit distributed to the peasants.  The peasants decided to make wine out of it anyway and the rest is history.  Was it curiosity? Was it desperation? Does it matter? Necessity is the mother of invention, and no one learns how to do more out of necessity than the impoverished. The irony of these wines being amongst the most costly is not lost on me. Today German Rieslings are made in varying degrees of sweetness, the sweetest of which (beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese) are both botrytis affected.

Arguably the most famous incarnation of botrytised wine comes from the French district of Sauterne where it is made from Semillon with Sauvignon Blanc and small amounts of Muscadelle.  The process of botrytising Sauternes dates to 1847 and an accidental late harvest.  Botrytis cinerea affected the wines in such a way that it became known as, “pourriture noble,” which translates to, “noble rot.” Chateau d'Yquem being the most vaunted of the lot, a rare 1787 vintage Chateau d'Yquem fetched $100,000 from an anonymous American collector in 2006.

Let's talk about noble rot. Mold infects grapes on the vine, rotting them.  This is no exaggeration.  If you’ve never seen a botrytis infected bunch then imagine horrible, shrivelled, decrepit grapes, the likes of which you wouldn’t even dream of touching, no less putting in your mouth.  And yet, the world’s greatest sweet wines are made from these. But why does it make a sweet style?  

Botrytis grows on the skin of the grapes and effectively sucks the water out of the berries. Dehydrating them.  In doing so, it concentrates the sugars and flavors within the fruit.  Grapes, like any other fruit, accumulate sugar as they ripen.  Therefore, late picked grapes have not only given time for the mold to grow, but are high in sugar.  When the grapes are picked, only enough sugar is fermented out to result in a wine of approximately 12% - 13% alcohol with plenty of residual sweetness.

The conditions botrytis prefers are damp, humid environments.  Botrytis prefers thin skinned, tightly bunched varieties.  Thin skinned, so that it can penetrate the skin and access the berry’s moisture.  Tightly packed so as to spread more readily from berry to berry.  Semillon fits into both of these categories as does Riesling, so it’s little wonder that the majority of botrytised wines are made from these varietals.  Another variety particularly susceptible is Merlot.  Although usually a botrytis infected Merlot is thrown in the bin, dessert wine made from this variety is not unheard of.

 What separates the great botrytis wines from the rest is complexity of flavour and a fresh, acid finish. A brightness. Flavors to look for are honey, marmalade and citrus.  Acidity is essential to give the wine body - length and balance -  to avoid a short cloying experience with a sickly sweet finish.  The best news for the consumer of all things full of Yeats' warm south, full of the true and blushful Hippocrene - Longfellow's very Goblet of Life? Their beauty only improves score after score. Wish I could say that.

The dessert wine I will recommend to pair with our pumpkin caramel pot de cremes is Royal Tokaji.  It's an institution. It's noble. And it is inexplicably one of the wine world's best kept secrets. Tokaj is the region's name. Tokaji (with an i) is the wine itself. The letter "I" is a possessive. Both are pronounced TOE-Kye.

Formerly known as Tokaj-Hegyalja, the region is located in the northeastern corner of Hungary, a good 240 kilometers (150 miles) from the capital, Budapest. Its 5500 hectares (13,600 acres) of vineyards are woven around 27 villages and towns, such as Tarcal, Mád and Tokaj itself. Some of the wines are designated as Aszú . Aszú indicates that the wine is made of grapes infected with the botrytis fungus. Those grapes are pressed into a kind of paste, which is then added to a dry base wine (or fermenting must) to make Tokaji aszú. This wine can have a range of sweetness levels, which are distinguished on the bottle label by the number of puttonyos. The higher the puttonyos, the higher the wine's residual sugar. The top of the line Tokaji aszús are 5-puttonyos, with at least 120 grams of residual sugar per liter, and 6-puttonyos with a minimum of 150 g/l. While Tokaji aszú has variations of ripe, honeyed fruit tones that can range from pineapple and dried apricot to lychee and quince, and spice notes that may exude ginger and nutmeg, the wine is most often underscored by a rich, sometimes salty, volcanic minerality – thanks to the region's ancient volcanic terroir. France's Sauternes and the Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen from Austria and Germany are certainly amongst the world's stellar botrytized sweeties but, honey, Tokaji aszú just drips with distinction.

There are many makers in the region. The grande dame of Tokaji winemaking is István Szepsy from the village of Mád, with his 6 puttonyos aszú, szamorodni and stunning dry wines from superb mineral-packed vineyards such as Szent Tamás, Nyúlászó and Úrágya. Other greats include  Zoltán Demeter, Erzsébet Pince, Dobogó (Tokaj); Disznókő (near Mezőzombor); Gróf Degenfeld (Tarcal); Samuel Tinon (Olaszliszka) and Patricius (Bodrogkisfalud).

One popular house is called simply the Royal Tokaji Wine Company (also from Mád). It makes wonderful wine, the name is easy to remember and its provenance has an interesting backstory. This maker owns a unique combination of first- and second-growth vineyards that have always been privately owned. At one time, first-growth vineyards Betsek and Szt. Tamás were owned by Prince Rakoczi I. His vineyards were sold in the late 1660s to save the prince, who was involved in a conspiracy that would have otherwise cost him his life. His son, Prince Rakoczi II, was able to buy back the prized land in the 1700s. Three centuries later, these vineyards continue to be highly valued. The prices range depending on the seller and the growth from $19 to $50 for 500ml.

The growth regions are as follows:

"Szt. Tamás (SENT tahm-ash)

First growth

 Szt. Tamás Vineyard is located north of the Nyulászó Vineyard on south-facing slopes at nearly 220 meters (720 feet), overlooking the winery’s cellars. Named for the apostle Saint Thomas, the vineyard’s red volcanic-clay soil is high in iron oxide and has the ability to retain moisture well, a characteristic helpful in drought years. Wines produced from grapes grown here have a lovely, pure fruitiness, nice acidity and good ageability.

Betsek (bet-CHEK)

First growth

Betsek is named after an old Magyar family. Shaped like a crescent moon and facing southeast, it is located in what is known as the basin of the first growths. The Betsek terroir totals 89 hectares (219.9 acres). The area where the vineyard is located is typically cold — lower portions of the vineyard have been known to freeze in the spring. The black volcanic topsoil contributes to the mineral and lovely black pepper characters in the wine. Being at the bottom of the valley, the vineyard imparts a much more earthy character to the wine than the other first growths.

Mézes Mály (MAIZE-esh my)

Great first growth

Mézes Mály is one of only two vineyards in all of Tokaj to be named as a great first growth in the classification of 1700 (the other portion of the vineyard is owned by Hugh Johnson). It has since been referred to as “pro mensa caesaris primus haberi,” or “to be the first choice at the royal table,” — an honorable distinction likened to Château d’Yquem’s status in Bordeaux. Located on a south-facing slope, “Mézes Mály,” or “honeycomb,” is Royal Tokaji’s only vineyard with loess topsoil, providing the wines with honey and floral characteristics. These wines are softer than other Royal Tokaji wines grown in vineyards with volcanic-clay topsoil.


This recipe is simple, and straightforward. No baking required.

A few notes:

Use room temperature eggs to prevent curdling.
This dessert can be served warm or chilled.

If you can, do use homemade caramel sauce as it has a deeper flavor and avoids the cloying aftertaste found in commercial caramel sauce. It is also less costly than store brands. The recipe for it is included below. I LOVE MAKING CARAMEL SAUCE!!! Pure alchemy! The moment that something so gray and grainy becomes fluid, golden & fragrant, bubbling like the molten core of this earth... is one that never fails to thrill me! Then you add the creamy white to its deep burnt amber & the silken ribbons flow... INCREDIBLE! Then I add a hint of rose salt and well.. the tongue doesn't lie...  A heart attack guaranteed with every bite! It is truly orgasm-inducing.

Serves 6-8 people


Pot de Creme:

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • ¼ cup plus sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup plus two tablespoons of pumpkin puree
  • ¼ cup homemade caramel sauce (recipe follows)
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon  nutmeg
  • 1/8  teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Homemade Caramel Sauce:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 10 tablespoons of heavy cream
  • ½ teaspoons of kosher salt


Pot de Creme:

In a medium saucepan, bring heavy cream and sugar to a boil, whisking constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Put aside and let cool for five minutes.
In a medium heatproof bowl, whisk the egg yolks.  Add ¼ cup of heated cream mixture to egg mixture and whisk to combine. Continue adding cream mixture in ¼ cup increments to eggs until the two are fully combined. Place fully combined mixture back in to a pot and cook over moderate heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the custard coats the back of the spoon, about 4 minutes. Add in pumpkin puree, caramel sauce, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and vanilla and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to a blender and puree until very smooth, about 1 minute. Pour the finished custard through a strainer. Pour into individual ramekins.

Refrigerate until chilled about 2 hours.
To serve warm: Let the pots de crème stand at room temperature for 15-20  minutes prior to serving.

Homemade Caramel Sauce:

1.  Add sugar and water into a saucepan over medium low heat. Stir until sugar has dissolved. Use a wet brush to remove any crystals that form on the side. Once sugar has dissolved increase heat to high. Now and then, using the handle give the pot a swirl to keep the mixture moving. Do not stir the mixture directly. The mixture will start to bubble after a minute. As the mixture darkens to a  deep amber color, approximately 5-7 minutes, add the butter and cream to saucepan. The mixture will bubble wildly. Whisk to combine (bubbles will subside upon cooling). Add salt and stir to combine.