Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ad Hoc Inspired Salad - Beets, Avocados, Blood Oranges

Ad Hoc inspired salad.
This weekend AJ and I took a short trip up to Napa to see some East Coast friends of ours. When our friends invited us to dinner in Napa on a Friday night I was initially a little hesitant. Driving up to San Fran on a Friday from Mountain View is a nightmare, so Napa would only be worse. Plus, I had just taken a lot of time off for the holidays and wasn't sure about taking more time off from work. But then two very important things happened. First, our friends emailed to say they wanted to make reservations at Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc. And second, AJ said, "Are you saying you DON'T want to go to Napa?" Thank you husband of mine for slapping some sense into me.

"Bears, beets, battle star galactica."
 AJ and I had been to Ad Hoc for brunch two years ago during a trip to Napa with Malia. For those of you who have never been, Ad Hoc does a four-course, family-style, California cuisine. You are given no choice about what to eat, but I have never heard anyone complain about their meal. For brunch, we had their epic chicken and waffles. This meal was perfect after a day spent wine-"tasting" the entire day prior. So I was excited to experience their dinner.

Close up. Ahhh yeeeeaaah.
We arrived at dinner after a impromptu tasting hosted by Somerston winery at our hotel. The cab sav we tried was nice, but the reason I would visit their winery is for the opportunity to ride ATVs through their vineyard and hang with their sheep. Needless to say after a few glasses of vino, I was ready to eat. Luckily, we didn't have to figure out what to eat! AJ and I decided to split the wine pairing. Our first course was the salad, which turned out to be my favorite part of the meal. I know that sounds crazy, but the salad featured perfectly ripe avocados, blood oranges, golden beets, toasted hazelnuts, pomegranate seeds, mixed greens, and quinoa. The dressing was a citrusy vinagrette and we were offered a creme fraiche to drizzle over top. This salad was creamy, crunchy, bright, tart - essentially exploding with flavor, but perfectly balanced. While the dishes that followed - the pork, cheese plate, and apple crisp - were all delicious, I knew I wanted to recreate that salad.

Flavors melding in the bowl.

The salad I recreated on Sunday was an inspiration, not to be confused with a replica. I used some ingredients I had on hand, supplemented by purchases at the farmer's market. The focus was on avocados, beets, and blood oranges (Side note: I can't think of beets without thinking of Jim's imitation of Dwight on the Office.) I added some mixed greens, thin slices of fennel, and toasted almonds to the mix. I dressed them with a meyer lemon and garlic vinagrette. I also made a "creme fraiche" dressing in addition. At Ad Hoc they served the salad with a side bowl of an herby creme fraiche. I didn't have creme fraiche, so I mixed pepper goat cheese with olive oil mayo and meyer lemon juice. It was delightful. I love when you can find inspiration at restaurants and recreate the dish in your own home. I served this salad with a nice slice of pain au levain and a Torrontes wine. NOMS!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Braised Swiss Chard and Cannelini Beans (Zimino Di Bietole E Fagioli)

Perfect winter meal.

Week 2 of writing a new blog post a week! My goal is to cook a new recipe and post about it each week. I have a plethora of cookbooks that I haven't made a dent in. My mom got me "Lidia's Italy", written by Lidia Bastianich, last Christmas. Lidia takes us on a culinary tour of Italy (and Istria, where she grew up, which is now part of Croatia) - traveling to 10 regions from Piemonte to Puglia. For someone who has only traveled through Tuscany, her book provided me with a great overview of the different regions and the distinct cultures that separate them. 

I perused Lidia's recipes looking for something hearty, warm, and healthy. When I came across her Braised Swiss Chard and Cannelini Beans (Zimino Di Bietole E Fagioli - for those of you who want to learn a little Italian) I knew I had found a winner. This dish comes from the Tuscan region called Maremma (My mom may know Maremma for its Vermentino wine). Swiss chard is always available at our local farmer's market, but I never know what to do with it. This was a perfect time to incorporate it into a meal.

The dish takes a little preparation time, as the dried beans require soaking overnight. I put them in a pot of water right before I left for work and they were ready to go when I got home.   The dish comes together pretty easily. First, you cook the beans for 40 minutes. With 10 minutes to go I started boiling the swiss chard. When the beans are done, you heat olive oil, sliced garlic, and pepperoncino flakes (I used red pepper instead) in a dutch oven pot. Then you toast a couple tablespoons of tomato paste. After that you add a can of crushed tomatoes (I subbed a can of chunky tomato soup) and bring to a boil. Then you add the beans and finally the swiss chard. I added the juice of half a lemon and fresh oregano at the end. 

The dish was simple but delicious. Cooking beans from scratch is way better than canned beans - they don't have that mushy texture.  The swiss chard was like a heartier spinach and the tomato sauce added a rich acidity to bring the dish together. I topped it with a little fresh pecorino and served it with toasted bread. A little wine and you have a complete meal! Plus, this dish tasted even better the next day. I had several delicious and healthy lunches for the rest of the week.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Bucatini and Meatballs

Perfection on a plate.

The start of a New Year brings new resolutions, like writing more in your food blog. Writing and cooking bring me a sense of accomplishment and calm. It must be something about working with your hands. So in 2013 I am trying to cook a new recipe a week, which will hopefully be followed by a blog post. 
Spaghetti? Nah, try the thicker, chewier Bucatini!

I started off the year sick and eating large quantities of soup, so I was craving something a little heartier for my first home cooked meal. Spaghetti and meatballs sounded perfect. I had never made meatballs before, nor was it something that we ate much of growing up. My mom always served a meat sauce or a simple marinara with our pasta. However, living in San Fran, AJ and I stumbled upon a quaint Italian restaurant, Emmy's Spaghetti Shack. The restaurant has a fun vibe that is anything but your typical Italian place (think panties on the wall kind of atypical). Their spaghetti and meatballs made me realize what all the hype was about. It was with Emmy's in mind that we went about making our own meatballs. A simple google search for the best meatballs served as the starting point.

Not just 1 kind of meat, but 3 kinds of meat (beef, pork, veal)!
We headed to the store and got 1/2 pound each of ground beef, pork, and veal (AJ said this was the secret ingredient). Meatballs are fairly easy to make, kind of like a meat loaf, but mini! You toss together meat, breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley, egg, garlic, and pepper. A few things we did differently - we went with a 6-serving size, used more meat, reduced the cheese (pecorino) to half a cup, omitted salt (the cheese was super salty), added pepper, and subbed panko for regular breadcrumbs. I read somewhere that panko makes for better meatballs. And instead of frying, we baked these at 425 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

Is there sugar in that? Then yes! Sugar is the secret ingredient.
While the meatballs were cooking and the pasta water boiling, I started on a simple marinara. I heated 1/3 cup of olive oil on medium high, and sauteed 2 cloves of garlic, with a teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Then I added 1 tablespoon tomato paste and cooked that for a minute. Then I added a 32 oz can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes, a few spoonfuls of pasta water, and reduced the heat to medium. As I was tasting I felt the sauce needed a little balance to the salt and acidity. I added a tablespoon of sugar, which softened the flavors. Then I added ground pepper and chopped fresh oregano and parsley toward the end. 

We served our spaghetti over fresh bucatini instead of spaghetti. I really enjoyed the bucatini. It is thicker and chewier than spaghetti which really went well with the large meatballs. We used the leftover meatballs for subs the next day. Happy nomming and happy new year!