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Awake at the Whisk: March 2010

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Roasted Garlic Egg Salad: Revising a Classic

When it comes to egg salad, most people don’t want you messing with their momma’s recipe. If Mom made hers with pickle relish, then by golly, all good egg salad needs pickle relish. But if Mom’s recipe came without pickle relish, you might possibly start a household World War III by adding the stuff. There are certain classics that the home cook just doesn’t redesign.

Well, welcome to World War III! I have done the unthinkable. I’ve taken a classic recipe and utterly rearranged it. I have invented Roasted Garlic Egg Salad. And by jiminy, this stuff stands toe-to-toe with the classic version, if I do say so myself. Even my husband gobbled it up happily and without an utterance of “This isn’t how Mom used to make it.”

I hope you’ll agree that this little sandwich is delightful. In fact, now you can freely introduce egg salad to your “company’s coming” menu. By adding roasted garlic and “fancy” brown mustard, you’ve just elevated egg salad from brown bag lunch to Sunday brunch. Roll out the red carpet!

Roasted Garlic Egg Salad
4 organic hard-boiled eggs, peeled and rinsed
4 cloves roasted garlic (recipe follows)
1 ½ to 2 Tablespoons organic mayo (more or less, depending on how moist you like your egg salad)
1 teaspoon grainy brown mustard such as Boetje’s Stone Ground Mustard
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 slices corn rye bread

Farmers’ Market Fare: eggs, garlic, (mayo if you use farm eggs and local olive oil to make your own), rye bread
Non-local ingredients from grocery store: mustard, black pepper

Mash the hard-boiled eggs with a fork. Add the roasted garlic cloves, mayo, mustard, and black pepper. Stir to combine. Divide the egg salad evenly between the four slices of bread and serve as an open-faced sandwich.

Serves 4.

Roasted Garlic
1 Whole bulb garlic
1 teaspoon olive oil
A dash each of salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cut the upper inch off the bulb of garlic so that the whites of the cloves are just beginning to show. Tear off two square sheets of aluminum foil and place them one on top of the other. Set the garlic bulb in the middle of the foil, then drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pull the foil tight around the garlic and place in the middle oven rack for 45 minutes to an hour. You will know the garlic is fully roasted when the cloves turn a caramelized golden brown color. When the garlic has cooled, you can now individually pull off cloves of yummy roasted garlic for your egg salad. You can also use this heavenly invention on pizzas, in pasta sauce, with potatoes, and just about anything that you want to taste better.

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Monday, March 29, 2010


Fruitless Fall—A Book Review

I want people to read this book! It’s important.

As a cook, I elate in every fresh fruit, nut, or vegetable that crosses my cutting board. Vanilla bean, watermelon, and almond alike are all capable of sending me skipping across my kitchen with a whistle of delight on my lips. Yet, after reading James Beard Award-winning author Rowan Jacobsen’s Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, I realize my skipping days might come to an abrupt end. The decline of the honey bee is to blame.

Honey bees and other pollinators are responsible for the production of 80% of the foods that make up our diet, according to Jacobsen. But with the rapid collapse of bee colonies around the globe, those foods stand at dramatic risk of collapse themselves. If we can’t save the bees, we won’t be able to reverse the damage to our juicy watermelons or our buttery almonds. It’s already too late for vanilla.

What in the world is causing our world’s bees to disappear? Fruitless Fall weaves a tangled web of the many possible culprits: pesticides, stress, monoculture crops, an unhealthy plant, an addiction to cheap food, and antibiotics are just a few. Put all these factors together, and you’ve got an industry rife with problems that spell annihilation for our once-buzzing bees.

Fruitless Fall provides a thorough study of the role of honey bees in our contemporary agricultural system. Jacobsen educates the reader on everything bee-related from the science of the hive, the history of their transcontinental evolutionary journeys, the economics of honey, to a prototypical—and in some instances, a realistic—world without bees. You’ll learn how bees reproduce, the healthy ingredients that make up their potent honey, and the dog-eat-dog affect of capitalism on agricultural practices that in turn affect our striped friends.

It may come as no surprise that the rapid decline in the world bee population directly coincided with the 37% rise in grocery prices in 2006. But did you know that the exorbitant cost of vanilla is also directly linked to bees’ demise? According to Jacobsen, the only native bee capable of pollinating vanilla flowers has become extinct due to deforestation. Now, the only animal responsible for that creamy, sweet spice in your morning latte is man. Vanilla plants are literally pollinated by hand, “making it the most labor-intensive crop in the world” (page 202). No other species of bee has been able to replace this labor.

Because flowers and bees have evolved in such perfect harmony, when human practices cause the downfall of one, it’s only a matter of time before we experience the downfall of the other.

Fruitless Fall reveals the ugly underbelly of our collective need for cheap food and how that’s damaging bees and the honey industry. After all, where do we turn when we want something cheap? China, of course. Jacobsen takes us to the environmental-damage behemoth of a country, where pesticides are dumped, sprayed, and injected like weed seeds, ultimately infesting its honey exports with highly damaging chemicals. Although America can’t boast a light-handed pesticide record, it still shines like a nova compared to the pesticide black hole that is China. So, while American honey bee keepers are already experiencing declines in revenue with the weakening of their hives, China’s kicking them while their down with its cheap, but illegal, chemical-laden honey exports. Meanwhile, China’s own bee population is dwindling.

Sadly, China isn’t the only culprit in this story. Packed with a deluge of hardily-researched data and stories from across our own country, Fruitless Fall paints a disheartening picture of our current agricultural system—one that is heavily dependent upon a disappearing black-and-yellow-striped workforce. Jacobsen takes his reader to the almond fields of California (our state’s biggest and most lucrative export crop) to reveal an industry on the brink of disaster if we cannot keep our bees healthy, and one that in fact, may be causing the poor health of those bees. Jacobsen informs us of one beekeeper after another whose livelihoods have failed with the insect’s decline.

Yet, Jacobsen’s story doesn’t end in despair. He introduces us to bee saviors who are using organic methods to revive the honey bee. In a world riddled with chemicals, can the organic farmers help the bee make a comeback? Can they compete?

Like any good book, this one leaves the ultimate answer to us. There’s a list of pollinator-friendly plants that you can grow in your own yard, and a list of ways to make a difference in saving the bee, the butterfly, and a host of other pollinating critters.

After all, the future of our recipes depends on it!

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Lessons from Legend Darrell Corti

Is food sacred in America? What’s special about Sacramento as a food town? Will Corti Brothers grocery store close?

Two nights ago, Sacramento food legend Darrell Corti sat down with award-winning food journalist Elaine Corn as part of the Living Library discussion series sponsored by Time Tested Books and Midtown Monthly for a conversation about—you guessed it—food!

Aside from the occasional opportunity to ask for his opinion on a bottle of wine at Corti Brothers, I can’t say that I know him at all. Only, that is, by reputation.

For those of you who don’t know, Darrell Corti, owner of the fine foods grocery store Corti Brothers, isn’t just a legend in Sacramento. He’s world-renowned, according to his website, for his “encyclopedic knowledge of food and wines.” You’ll find his name in the memoires of former Gourmet Magazine editor, Ruth Reichl. Both Reichl and Corti are among those credited for putting California on the map for its great food and wine.

In 2008, Corti was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America for his vast wine knowledge. He is known world-wide for his incredible palette as a wine judge and as an expert in Italian foods—and any other food, for that matter. He has also been named a “Cavaliere” by the Italian government for promoting Italian foods, so he’s essentially a sort of “food knight.”

Having heard much ado about this culinary champion, I was eager to find out what gems he would share about the Sacramento food world. So I joined the packed crowd at Time Tested Books to hear him speak. Here’s what he had to say…

Food as Sacred
When Corti was a young boy, his grandmother hit him for setting a loaf of bread on top of the counter upside down. She was angered that he showed such disrespect for the bread. That was the day young Corti learned that food is sacred.

Yet, to his sadness, Corti believes that most Americans have an utter disregard for food. We don’t eat leftovers. We buy more food than we need, and when it spoils, we throw it out. Yet, we want to buy this food in bulk, and buy it cheap.

“If we’re so wealthy [that wasting food doesn’t bother us], why does food have to be so cheap?” Corti asks.

Americans as Cooks
Elaine Corn asked Corti for his impression of Americans as cooks. Corti responded, “Americans are next to the Japanese in being able to imitate things.” Because we can master the recipe for any number of ethnic recipes, and then make them our own, Corti is impressed by the American cook.

Making Ingredients from Scratch
On the subject of making food from scratch, Corti responds like the practical grocer that he is. “If you can buy quality ready-made products, do it! It’s what you do with it that matters.” He described an Italian friend who long ago shunned the notion of making pasta by hand once he discovered a wonderful brand sold at Corti Brothers. If the final product can’t be improved upon, why bother? Cut yourself a break and use the products off Corti’s shelf!

He makes a valid point when he describes the home cooks of yore, pounding away at large bricks of salt and sugar with a mortar and pestle. “When granulated sugar and salt were invented, man never looked back!” he said.

Yet, when it comes to “people who actually cook out of a microwave? That I find reprehensible!” Corti declares.

Genetically Modified Foods
Corti believes that modern agronomical science has its place. But his main concern when it comes to food is taste. Regarding scientists tinkering with plants, he believes that the main outcome ought to be to make them taste better. End of discussion.

14.5% Alcohol Wines
Corti says there are wines that taste good with more than 14.5% alcohol, but he has no use for them in his store. He won’t sell anything higher than 14.5%, and believes that consumers should vote that way, too.

Is Sacramento the New L.A.?
According to Corti, it is, indeed! He explained that 30 years ago, people in L.A. had to travel to San Francisco for good food. Until recently, Sacramentans did the same. Yet, Corti believes we’ve always had “reasonable cooking here.” And today, he beams with pride over restaurants like Biba and Mulvaney’s. He said that what makes Sacramento a special food place is that “for a very long time, it considered that it wasn’t.”

The Fate of Corti Brothers
In 2008, the Sacramento community was in an uproar when Corti Brothers nearly lost their lease. After protests and local media storms, today Corti proudly informed us that his grocery store now has a 10-year lease. You can expect to find him in his shop on the corner of Folsom Blvd. and 59th Street for another decade to come!

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Monday, March 22, 2010


Pumpkin Waffles with Vanilla Whipped Cream

Welcome to my favorite breakfast. I love waffles. I love how they fill the whole house with their unmistakable aroma. I love how pretty they look stacked on a plate. I love how easy they are to make (I read the paper while I wait for each one). I especially love how many flavors you can create from them.
My most recent favorite: pumpkin waffles loaded with spice and topped with fluffy, sweet vanilla whipped cream. Just thinking about them makes me want to run to my kitchen and start making a batch.

They taste so delicately sweet, so light, and so luscious that you’ll want to feel guilty. But you can’t. This bliss is made with “Super Food” pumpkin, healthy whole grains, and lots of joyful spices to make your heart happy.

Made with fresh ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves, these spicy waffles will beckon you to settle in for a while. Savor the morning, and the flavors, as you linger with family or friends. Sit back. Close your eyes. And wait for heaven to blanket you in soft, splendid bites of perhaps the best. waffles. ever!

Pumpkin Waffles with Vanilla Whipped Cream

¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup oat bran
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup pumpkin puree
4 eggs
2 cups buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon spiced rum
¼ cup canola oil

Vanilla Whipped Cream
1 cup organic heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons granulated sugar

Additional ingredients:
Grade B organic maple syrup

Farmers’ Market Fare: Walnuts, eggs
Local California ingredients: buttermilk, cream
Non-local supermarket ingredients: flours, oat bran, sugar, spices, salt, baking powder and soda, pumpkin puree (unless you can your own), vanilla extract, rum, maple syrup

Preheat waffle iron. Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Place a large, metal bowl in the freezer (to be used later to make vanilla whipped cream).

In a large bowl, combine the flour and the following 11 dry ingredients (ending with baking soda). Stir with a whisk to combine. Form a well in the center and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the pumpkin puree, eggs, buttermilk, vanilla extract, rum, and canola oil with a whisk.

Add the pumpkin mixture to the flour mixture. Stir with the whisk until combined. The batter will be thick.

Lightly spray your waffle iron with nonstick spray. Pour about 2/3 cup of the waffle batter onto the waffle iron. Close the lid and cook the waffle according to the instructions in your waffle iron. When each waffle has baked until golden, place it directly on the oven rack in a single layer in your preheated oven.

Remove metal bowl from freezer. Pour heavy whipping cream into the bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat the cream on medium speed for about 1 minute, or until soft peaks begin to form. Add the vanilla extract and sugar. Resume beating on medium speed until firm peaks form.

When all the waffles are ready, serve them with a dollop of whipped cream on top and maple syrup on the side. Try not to die from over-enjoyment.

If you have leftover waffles, take them out of the oven and allow them to cool on a wire rack in a single layer. (If you stack them, they’ll turn soggy.) Store in an airtight container in the fridge. You can also store leftover whipped cream in a jar in the fridge for later use.

Makes about 9 fluffy waffles.

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Monday, March 15, 2010


Kitchen Tools I Can’t Live Without: Grandma's Nut Mill

I’m crazy for nuts! Give me a walnut, a pecan, or a hazelnut, and watch my eyes light up. I eat them for breakfast, as snacks, in stir fry, and throw them in just about everything I bake. But I don’t like getting out my bulky cutting board when I’m rushing to make my morning oatmeal. Instead, I rely on a tool my grandmother used: a nut mill.

When I moved away from home many moons ago, I left behind the comforts of my mom’s and grandma’s kitchen supplies. Gone were their perfect cookie cutters, their quality knives, and their pretty serving dishes. But what I missed most was that nut mill!

Whenever I’m baking a recipe that calls for nuts, my countertop is usually already filled with bowls, measuring cups, and lots of bulky ingredients. The extra space required for the cutting board, just to chop a few nuts, is annoying. My grandma’s old nut mill took up no more space than another measuring cup, and reduced the chopping time significantly.

Last year, when my husband and I switched our morning breakfast cereal to oatmeal, I longed for the speed of that old nut mill. I went in search of the tool at a fancy kitchen chain store (yes, I occasionally sin). I described the tool I was looking for, and a helpful clerk led me to a newer version of my grandma’s old nut mill. For the bargain price of $16, I snatched it up. Finally! I was ecstatic.

Using the new-fangled nut mill, however, has proven frustrating. The cheap plastic parts are held together poorly. As I grind, the bottom and top halves often disconnect. I have to use a delicate touch with a tool that should not be finicky. I have sent nuts flying across my counter and onto the floor many times because of this product defect. So annoying!

Lucky for me, I stumbled upon an old nut mill just like my grandma’s in the thrift store yesterday. Halleluiah! Made with a quality glass jar (not cheap plastic), this nut mill is built to last. You can turn the handle as quickly as you like, and there’s no chance that the top will unscrew from the bottom. There’s no lid on this older version (the new version has one), but it really makes no difference, because you have to push down on the top of the contraption (new or old version) to keep them secure on the counter while you spin. Inevitably, your hand acts as the lid on the old version. No problem.

I should note that the nut mill doesn’t replace the need to occasionally break out the cutting board. If you want large chunks of chopped nuts, you’ll still want to use a knife. Both the new and old version of the nut mill makes very small pieces, ideal for cakes and oatmeal. But if I’m making cookies or chopping nuts for decoration, I chop them in larger bits with my knife on a cutting board.

So, for $4 spent at the thrift store, I have finally returned to nut milling bliss—the kind from my days of yore. Don’t be fooled by the fancy new contraptions they’re selling in the fancy stores these days. Sometimes, you must believe in the old adage: if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This is certainly true of the old fashioned nut mill.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Garlic & Sapphires: An Inspired Book Review

In honor of Ruth Reichl’s upcoming appearance in Sacramento as part of the California Lecture Series, I am providing a review of the book that made me a food writer: Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.

I first stumbled across this book in an airport several years ago. Bored with the nonfiction book I had packed, and facing a long delay, I headed to the airport bookstore for something more spirited. The pickings were slim, but Garlic and Sapphires stood out. I didn’t imagine myself the type of person who would devour every word written by a food critic. To me, such people belonged to a group of pretentious elites. I’m a practical cook. I use coupons when I eat out. I’m passionate about food, but how could I ever relate to a food critic? Didn’t they dine in exclusive restaurants eating nothing but caviar and champagne?

Yet, the book jacket of Garlic and Sapphires seemed to present something different. It promised the story of a critic who hid behind disguises in the hopes of being treated like a “regular” customer, maybe even a customer like me. It promised laughs. This was just the sort of light reading I needed.

With the swipe of my credit card, little did I know that my life was about to change.

With one turn of the page, I was immediately hooked by Garlic and Sapphires. This was not the story of a highfalutin food snob. Instead, it was the story of a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend. She took me with her to her new job at the New York Times, where she was at times timid. She took risks as a female in a traditionally male profession. She went to great pains to hide her position of authority as an important food critic in order to reveal the treatment of ordinary people in the city’s finest restaurants. She even ate in (gasp) ethnic restaurants off the five-star circuit—a new twist for the paper.

To my great surprise, I found myself wholly immersed in every word of her food reviews. When she described taking a bite of sushi, I could feel the sting of wasabi on my tongue. When she ate a piece of steak, my mouth watered. And I’m a vegetarian!

Reichl’s keen ability to transfer food’s flavor to the pages of a book and then straight onto your palette astounds. No other writer possesses this mouth-watering ability. Her zeal for food and for life leaps off every page. Similarly, her ability to draw you in, using food as an anchor for more meaningful stories about family, friends, and profession, leaves the reader hungry for more.

Garlic and Sapphires is the story of a woman making ethical choices as she bravely transforms the field of food writing. Her culinary tales act as condiment, bringing zest and depth to the book. One of my favorite vignettes shares an intimate moment between Reichl and her young son as they stir together the ingredients for a simple cake. That scene reveals the deeply personal relationships Reichl communicates to her reader through food, and her very unpretentious approach.

Through this book, my own zeal for writing was reawakened. As a young girl, I always told my mom I would grow up to be a writer. Yet soon after college, I chose another path. The writing I performed at work held a much more standard function. It never sparked a fire in my belly as the words of Ruth Reichl did.

When I finished reading Garlic and Sapphires, I bought Reichl’s other memoires. After reading Tender at the Bone, I put the book down and opened my laptop. For the first time since high school, I began writing from a place of passion—and I haven’t stopped.

If you want a taste of this inspiration, Ruth Reichl is coming to Sacramento on March 26. For $100, you can join her for a Garlic and Sapphires reception at Grange Restaurant & Bar. Though I admit it’s a steep price, I also believe that if you’re passionate about food, this might be the best $100 you’ll ever spend.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Quail Egg Appetizer on Blini with Grapefruit Zest & Dill Sauce

Want an easy way to impress your party guests? Try these! They’re tiny, cute, and tasty to boot. You can find fresh quail eggs for a mere $1 at the Sacramento downtown farmers’ market on Sunday.

When you present a platter of these, your friends will ooh and ah. Go ahead. Let them think you slaved all day! Only you and I will know how quick these little treats really are to prepare.

Quail Egg Appetizer on Blini with Grapefruit Zest & Dill Sauce
20 quail eggs

Blini with Grapefruit Zest
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ Tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg (chicken egg, not quail egg)
1 cup buttermilk
1 Tablespoon melted butter
Zest from one grapefruit

Dill Sauce
1 cup organic sour cream
2 Tablespoons organic mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon dill weed

Farmers’ Market Fare: quail eggs, grapefruit, chicken egg, butter, mayonnaise (you can make your own mayonnaise with local egg yolk and olive oil)
Locally sourced from California: buttermilk, sour cream
Garden-grown: dill
Supermarket ingredients (non-local): flour, salt

To hard boil the quail eggs, lay them in the bottom of a small sauce pan in a single layer. Cover with cold water about 1 inch over the tops of the eggs. Partially cover the pan with a lid, and turn heat on to medium high. Bring water to a boil. As soon as the water boils, place the lid fully over the pan and turn the heat off. Set a timer to 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, fill a small bowl with ice and water. As soon as the egg timer rings, drain the hot water from the quail eggs and immediately place the eggs in the ice water bath to stop them from cooking. This method will produce an egg with a creamy yellow middle.

When the eggs have completely cooled, crack each egg thoroughly on a plate to loosen the shell. From the bottom of the egg, pinch the shell to tear it open. Gently peel the egg. Rinse off any bits of shell that remain behind. Repeat until all the eggs are peeled. Set them aside until assembly.

Meanwhile, make the blinis (or mini pancakes). First, place two skillets on the stove top over medium heat.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In another small bowl, whisk together the egg, buttermilk, melted butter, and grapefruit zest. Add this buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and whisk until combined.

Coat your skillets lightly with olive oil. Using a single Tablespoon, drop the blini batter onto the skillet. You should avoid using too much batter. You want the blinis bite-sized, or smaller than a biscuit cutter.

I use two skillets at once and make four blinis at a time in each skillet (or 8 blinis at one time). This speeds up the cooking time considerably.

You should flip the blini over when air bubbles begin to surface, and then cook until they are golden brown on each side. Place each finished blini on a wire rack to cool to room temperature.

While the blinis cool, make the dill sauce. Stir together sour cream, mayonnaise, and dill weed until well combined.

Now you are ready to assemble your appetizers.

Set one single blini on a pretty serving tray. Top with one teaspoon dill sauce placed in the center of the blini. Place a hard-boiled quail egg in the center of the dill sauce. Repeat.

You are now ready to impress your guests!

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