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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Shaken And Stirred - Easy Skillet Spinach Mushroom Frittata with Chevre

One of the many unique features of living in San Francisco that makes it seem like an earthly paradise is its dramatic and  visually stunning topography. Every tourist who has ever snapped a picture with her iPhone goes home with glorious shots which Ansel Adams would have proudly displayed; though, of course, they would have done it with devices & techniques that would have his light meter spinning in its grave: like... sticking a cellphone out of the rental car's sunroof while driving down the coastal highway and blindly snapping away.
Don't scoff, you know you've done it too.

Why can these untutored, landlocked philistines from the center of the continent take such amazing photos? Because the S.F. Bay Area is just that beautiful! No photographic artistry is required. I won't subject you to long descriptive passages of its majestic hills and sparkling bay views; the wispy finger-like projections of mist that slowly enshroud the unsuspecting city in a veil of fog and mystery on a warm summer day or the rows of houses, standing like lines of colorful dominoes, impossibly perched on top of the steepest slopes. No, I won't try. I couldn't do it justice. But Nature must have its little jokes and all of this topographical splendor comes at a price: earthquakes.

The few times a native New Yorker (like me ) thinks about the earth moving she (or he) associates it with incredible lovemaking. As the lyric in the Roberta Flack song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" suggests: "...the first time ever I lay with you, I felt the earth move in my head ...", the earth moving should be thought of metaphorically in association with that beautiful feeling of romantic euphoria and sexual ecstasy. Not so when you leave the terra firma of the northeast and head out to the wild west where the ground bucks like a bad-tempered bronco at a rodeo. When people say they felt the earth move in the bay area, they are being anything but poetic.

Of course, after years of living in earthquake country, I am now a grizzled old veteran of non-erotically induced earth movements. I've felt the occasional jolt over the years but I never immediately recognized it as an earthquake. After each one, it has always taken me some time to actually attribute the tremors to its source because each event was so brief and unassuming that I never became alarmed. In my poor prosaic mind, so firmly grounded (pardon the pun) in east coast sensibilities, you should reflexively register fear any time the ground beneath your feet moves and you're not on a treadmill at the gym. It's an autonomic, visceral reaction to real danger, right? But as I said, I faced these aforementioned earth tremors blithely; and even thought of them as an exciting part of SF living: it gives you something to talk about with your hairdresser that day other than your split ends. Until today......

At 4:42 am this morning, I was startled into wakefulness by my bed doing its best imitation of a wine cork being tossed around in the Pacific Ocean. As I clutched the bedcovers and rode the wave for 7 or 8 seconds (though it seemed a lot longer), I heard the pocket door that partitions my bedroom from the rest of the master suite rattle like skeletons in a presidential candidate's closet. Needless to say, I instantly recognized this experience for what it really was: an honest-to-goodness, make-no-mistake-about-it, bone-rattling earthquake. Although for half of a mad second (my denial machine running full-throttle), I did think it could be the harbinger of the demonic possession of my soul. After all, I am a fanciful, somewhat neurotic, former catholic schoolgirl turned atheist who being all alone in the house and, it being a week before Easter, rented the movie "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" where the heroine's unfortunate dilemma began in precisely the same bed-shaking manner. Enough said.

The point, which I have finally gotten around to, is that I was scared out of my wits (hence the demonic possession delusion), hobbled out of bed with my bad right knee (don't ask) and did what every modern, enlightened, concerned citizen does in the wake of such an incident... turned on the local news station so some talking head in a bad suit could confirm the obvious. Silly, isn't it? But it has become a reflexive response to all disasters, real or perceived.
Did I try to take cover under a doorway or heavy piece of furniture? Check the boiler room or stove for leaks? Survey all or any damage? No, instead I sat quietly trembling in my dressing room and watched some poor KRON anchor-schnook (with Walter Konchrite aspirations who would be lucky to anchor the evening news for some NBC affiliate in Peoria) tell me what I already knew: an earthquake had hit the SF bay area. Of course, he informed me that it registered as a minor 4.2 quake on the Hayward Fault with its epicenter somewhere east of the bay; something I myself could not possibly confirm having lost my Richter scale during the move into our new home.

Feeling accomplished and secure in the knowledge that this thing that jolted me out of my bed was not the arrival of Armageddon , I had a brief look around. When I was satisfied that nothing was damaged (in fact, surprisingly, nothing had even been disturbed), I hobbled back to my bed, put on my blinders and earplugs and passed out until mid-morning.

Somehow when I finally arose later that morning to a bright sunny day, instead of booking the next flight out of town, I awoke hungry and felt inspired to create a mini-quake of my own for breakfast. (Welcome to the left-coast where reality is just an alternate universe and everything always seems better in the light of a beautiful dawn. Must be something in the water.)

What better way to commemorate my first true ground-shaking San Francisco experience than with a post-earthquake repast that combines the bounty of the bay area's summer produce with a cooking technique that celebrates the spirit of that quintessentially Californian force of nature that makes us shake, rattle and roll: the Hayward Fault? Can you guess what I wanted for breakfast?.... Scrambled eggs, of course! As an ode to my scrambled brains. But in true San Francisco fashion, we will gussy the eggs up a bit with seasonal local produce to give them some gourmet cache while still keeping them humble and accessible to all who can wield a cast-iron skillet with a nod to France who offers grand cuisine with liberteegalite and fraternite (and many earth movements of the more carnal variety), I offer you: 

A spinach, shiitake mushroom, shallots and truffled chevre 4 egg frittata to be exact.

Uber-easy to make and also relatively cost efficient. Can feed four people. I myself only ate 1/4 of this and shall enjoy it for breakfast tomorrow, too. Frittatas reheat magnificently in the microwave without becoming rubbery. The frittata is the less precious cousin of the French omelette. In fact, a frittata is heartier, healthier and more satisfying than its famous cousin. As a cook, you have more margin for error. I actually prefer frittatas, I can load them up more, they are the lazy woman's open-face omelette... Eggs qua eggs have never been my favorite protein. I have never fried an egg, nor eaten a fried egg. I have only just learned to eat boiled eggs (in Nicoise salads drowning in aioli), yet I do enjoy eggs scrambled or baked as custards, something about the integrated whole of the egg appeals to me.. its transcendence from embryo to luscious meal is alchemical. Making true omelettes is an active meditation. To keep the omelette thin and crepe-like is a science more than an art. You have the heat low, keep the curds stirring slowly, evenly and constantly until the heat slowly denatures and coagulates the protein. It takes a while. Too high a heat without enough motion and the skin will wrinkle and brown.. If you like fluffier more American-style omelets, you can start out with a higher heat, stir faster to incorporate more air, then lower the heat to avoid scorching. A scorched omelette has gotten many a budding apprentice cook hit with a hot frying pan in ye olde French restaurants of yore... probably still does.

Frittatas, on the other hand, are more forgiving, less exacting. The word “frittata,” derives from the Italian verb “friggere,” or “to fry,” connoting the simplicity and pleasures of cucina povera—the “humble cuisine” that most of us innately embrace. Egg is the base. With its high protein and mineral content, easy availability and low cost, eggs are an essential part of the diet almost everywhere in the world. From China and Southeast Asia to to Japan to India and Iran, up to the Maghreb, Spain, France, and Italy some kind of frittata-like dish is prepared. Surprisingly, in Italy, it’s rare to find a restaurant that offers frittata on its menu; it’s the quintessential home food. I never found one... in fact, when I traveled through the country from Alba all the way down to Capri and back again, breakfast was invariably coffee and pastries, little bit of fruit. Our super-sized omelettes may have served as dinner or lunch but never breakfast.

Naturally, the tastiest frittate are made with the best eggs—farm fresh with luscious, orange yolks. City-living doesn't allow for it, sadly. But, of course, eggs are just the beginning; the most distinctive aspect of the Italian frittata compared to similar preparations is the creative and imaginative use of all kinds of ingredients.  The ingredients of an omelette are gently placed into the beaten eggs as they are cooking in the pan. In a frittata, the eggs and ingredients are mixed together, then cooked more slowly. Also, the final shapes are different; an omelette is usually thinner, carefully folded around its ingredients; where a frittata is thicker. filled to the bursting  with goodies like a broken pinata.  There’s an Italian expression: “hai fatto una frittata,”which loosely translated means: you’ve made quite a mess—or a sequence of mistakes.  That expression no doubt comes from the fact that it often happens that a frittata is made on the spur of the moment: a last-minute decision made when you don’t have the time to go grocery shopping and the refrigerator seems bare. But all those odds and ends and leftovers in your fridge can make for a great frittata. In fact, in Italy, sometimes before serving lunch or dinner, a small portion of the meal is purposely put aside for a frittata the next day making delicious frittate with leftover pasta or rice (with or without sauce or seasoning). Also, a frittata is a perfect way to entice children into eating vegetables or conversely teach people like me who are not overly fond of eggs to eat eggs... To me, eggs are merely the vehicle for the luscious filling. It can be tastier hours later, eaten at room temperature, or enjoyed the next day, with a side of arugula. When stored in the fridge, be sure to wrap your frittata in plastic wrap and then put your frittata in an airtight plastic container, as water and humidity can ruin the taste. Remember: any greens or veggies you add into the frittata must first be sautéed, in order to eliminate most of their water. As for whether to use butter or extra-virgin olive oil—I use both - besides just personal preference, you should also consider which of those tastes marries best with the other ingredients you’re using in the dish. I used what I had on hand, but if I had my druthers, I would have added lovely red peppers to this dish as another aromatic. This will serve four people admirably, especially with a simply dressed tossed salad of arugula. You can easily double the ingredients, however, and use the same pan.

Easy Skillet Spinach Mushroom Frittata with Chevre

This recipe requires 1 well-seasoned 9" or 10" cast-iron skillet for the eggs, a pre-heated oven, 35 minutes of cooking time and, ideally, room temperature ingredients.  If you don't have a high quality cast-iron skillet, run out to your nearest William Sonoma (another S.F. classic) and buy one. Le Creuset is my favorite. They last a lifetime, come in the sweetest colors, and are indispensable to the home cook.

Don't try to substitute the cast-iron skillet with a stainless steel or aluminum saute pan. Their bottoms and sides are not thick enough to form the desired texture of the crust. Instead, try using a well-oiled (or buttered) 9" round glass or ceramic baking dish. The spinach mixture will still need to be sauteed in a pan and then placed in your baking dish with the egg custard mixture before baking. 


For the custard:

  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten, but white and yolk fully incorporated
  • 1/2 cup half & half or heavy cream
  • 1/8 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
  • 4 leaves of fresh basil, cut into chiffonade
  • 2 sprigs of fresh Italian parsley, leaves only, finely chopped
  • 4 oz. of chevre (mine was truffled) or  lovely ricotta, or freshly grated aged cheddar, gruyere or fontina (use a good melting cheese)
  • salt and  pepper to taste
For the spinach mixture:
  • 6 oz. of baby spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 2 shallots, finely sliced
  • 1/4 lb of shiitake mushrooms (substitute any mushroom you like)
  • 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter (preferably a european-style butter with a higher fat content. I like Kerrygold brand - it's an Irish butter made from grass-fed cows)
  • salt and pepper to taste
For the crust:
  • 1 La Brea Rosemary Olive Oil boule , brushed lightly with extra-virgin olive oil
    ( La Brea is a bakery in Los Angeles whose breads are shipped unbaked to a few select Bay Area markets like Whole Foods and then freshly baked on site before being sold. Thanks to my friend, Nicole, for introducing me to their boule. Our local Acme Bread's Levain Walnut or Rosemary Foccaccia is also a fab substitute. You can use any other brand or flavor of dense, crusty bread.)


Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Heat skillet on medium high heat, when hot, add 2 Tbs. olive oil & 1 tsp. of butter. When butter melts, lower heat to medium then add a couple of grinds of salt( or 1/8 tsp.) followed by the mushrooms. Saute until mushrooms soften, they will absorb the oil, but add more as needed, when mushrooms soften add shallots until shallots are translucent. Add spinach to mixture, stirring well to incorporate the spinach with the aromatics,  feel free to add a little extra butter or even a bit of stock, if the spinach mixture appears dry before it fully wilts. Cook spinach until completely wilted, all the moisture has just evaporated out of the mixture. Turn heat to very low; season lightly with salt and pepper, tasting to insure proper flavor. If the mixture still appears watery after the spinach is wilted, blot out any excess liquid with a paper towel.

Combine the ingredients (except the cheese & herbs) for the custard in a large stainless steel bowl with a wire whisk, incorporating one element at a time. Whip the egg mixture up vigorously until the mixture appears light & foamy then gently fold the cheese, basil and parsley into the custard with a spatula, careful not to deflate the foam.

Add the remaining butter to the spinach mixture in the skillet; swirling it in to ensure that the entire pan is completely buttered. Now add the custard to the warm spinach mixture, stirring very lightly to evenly distribute it in the pan. Place skillet in the center rack of the preheated oven, turn the oven temperature down to 350 degrees. Bake the eggs for 25-30 minutes until puffy and golden. The center should still be slightly quivering when ready. When done, remove eggs from oven, let stand for 5 minutes.

When eggs have 5-7 minutes remaining for cooking time, quickly place bread directly on rack in oven and heat until eggs are done and bread is hot & crusty.

While frittata is resting, heat 4 plates in the microwave for 1 minute.

While plates are heating, slice bread in half at its equator (horizontally) if you are using a boule. Remove some of the bread from the center of the loaf, leaving the edges intact,  cut each half vertically into half again. Place a slice of bread on each warm plate. Cut the quiche into four wedges; carefully nestle each wedge into the warm bread, garnish with extra basil. Or if you don't have a boule, just toast up nice thick slices of bread. 

Serve the frittata with a side of sliced seasonal fruit for breakfast, or a green salad for lunch.

Serves four normal civilians or two hungry earthquake survivors.