Monday, April 28, 2014

Lessons from the Big Kitchen

Every now and again I'll venture out of my comfort zone and out of the little kitchen. One of the great perks of working at Bi-Rite is the opportunity to take classes at 18 Reasons, our non-profit educational and event space. I love the hands-on cooking classes where I get the opportunity to cook in a professional kitchen, socialize with fellow enthusiasts, chat with professionals and learn something new. By day, the big kitchen behind the event space functions as the bake shop for the Bi-Rite Creamery.
The warm cozy storefront is an inviting communal dining room, classroom, art gallery, library & event space with a little bit of retail. This evening, the long table is set for 16 with water glasses, wine glasses and milk bottles filled with water. There are stacks of sturdy white plates and big mason jars filled with utensils and napkins. There's nothing fancy, yet it's elegant in it's simplicity. People strolling by can't help but be intrigued by what's going on.
What's going on this evening is a class called Flavors of the Middle East. We will be led through the evenings menu by Risa Lichtman, a local foodie and mastermind behind this wonderful and much anticipated event called Sunday Supperings, a communal dining experience and underground supper club, she hosts in her backyard several times a year. Risa lived in Israel for many years and will share some of her favorite dishes tonight.
Prior to class we  are emailed instructions to bring a knife, an apron and to wear closed- toed shoes. The menu along with the recipes are included.

On the menu:
herbed falafel balls over tahini sauce with homemade za'atar
fresh pita bread
chard & feta filo rolls with currants and pine nuts
spring greens with fresh herbs and citrus
cardamom-scented poached pears.

I could not have been more thrilled when I read that. Ever since I got my mitts on Ottolenghi's Plenty and Jerusalem and started cooking from them, I'm a little cuckoo for middle eastern foods. I love falafel but I've never made it. I didn't actually get to make it tonight either, though I did get to stand over the hot fat and deep fry them.

The way a class like this usually works is the counter space is divided into mise-en-place(d) stations, that's the french culinary term for ingredients/tools/bowls in place- and we break off into groups after being given some demo and basic instructions...dicing onions, smashing garlic etc. Here she's demo-ing the filo wrapped goat cheese and chard logs.

I can't remember the last time I used filo. It overwhelms me with it's (my imagined) high maintenance: freezing and thawing and keeping it moist while working quickly so as not to dry it out and keeping it from cracking...sheeesh! There's too much of it for any little dish I want to fool around with and it doesn't seem like it would hold up well to left-overs and it's a little too pricey. Those are all my excuses for not making anything with filo. Yet...I love filo! Greek Cheese Pies and Spanakopita and baklava. Now this Sweet & Savory Chard & Feta Tart is definitely on the To Do list. Lesson learned: place a sheet of dry paper towel between the damp dish towel and the sheets of filo while you work and if the sheet tears it doesn't matter. But did I jump into the filo group? uhm no.
I wanted to make the za'atar, a middle eastern herbal spice blend that, similar to a curry in that it can consist of variations of components, but generally includes thyme, oregano, marjoram, sesame seeds and salt. Less common is to find a blend that includes sumac, a spice made from dried and crushed sumac berries. Sumac is tangy & citrusy. It's a great way to add the tang of citrus without the acidity. In the Middle East, there is a true za'atar shrub which is somewhat similar to thyme.  I had been introduced to za'atar when I started cooking from Plenty and then Jerusalem (which I'm currently revisiting).
I see za'atar as an ingredient in many, many middle eastern recipes and it just seemed like the best place to start:
Next to the cutting board sat a bundle of fresh oregano, thyme, a couple of jars of white sesame seeds, salt and a bowl of sumac.
Two of us commenced to chopping the fresh herbs. I love thyme but I always haaaate chopping it, well actually it's the stripping the leaves off the stem part that becomes tedious after the first two or three stems. Fresh herbs stripped and chopped, I moved on to tossing & toasting the sesame seeds in a dry skillet (being a type A overachiever, I was secretly thrilled when Risa complimented me on my tossing skills)  Once I mixed the hot seeds into the rest of the herbs the smell was just incredible, but the entire kitchen just smelled heavenly.

The entire experience is fun and engaging. I fried some falafel, plated some tahini and topped the platter with my fresh za'atar. Top photo is za'atar topped labneh, a middle eastern yogurt that is very similar to greek yogurt but more firm, almost the consistency of  cream cheese. We spread that on the hot pita bread. Amazing.

The highlight of the evening, for me, is NO CLEAN UP! Kudos and thanks to the amazing volunteers who are truly the kitchen fairies we all dream about when we're home trashing our own kitchens. They're on hand for any manner of kitchen assistance, magically appearing with tools and bowls when we need them, removing the empties and dirties, washing as we basically trash the place and when the assembly and cooking is done, the pita bread and filo tarts have gone into the oven, we head into the dining room and take our seats at the table, the kitchen fairies start bringing out serving bowls of labneh topped with za'atar and whole wheat pita bread fresh from the oven, crispy on the outside, soft and bready inside. We help ourselves and pass the bowls around. Wine is served, water bottles refilled and the platters of za'atar topped tahini and falafel follow. Happy chattering and eager consumption. Everyone loves talking about the food we had a hand in creating. When the rolls of filo tart are placed before us we're almost full...and finally the poached pears.
This is creating community through food.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Roasted Red Pepper Grilled Cheese Sandwich

I can't even begin to describe how much I love a grilled cheese sandwich with a fried egg. This was the last of my treasured roasted red peppers. I'm crazy about roasted red peppers and ridicoulously try to hang on to them too long. On the average I roast about 4 red peppers and use them a number of ways to use in omelettes, on toasts, in quesadillas, in spreads and of course, grilled cheese sandwiches.  which I'd covered with olive oil and stored in an airtight jar. I scraped everything into a 1 cup pyrex prep bowl and microwaved for about 30 seconds just to completely liquify the oil. I pressed back the peppers with a fork and drained the oil into a skillet until I was ready to cook the egg.
Here's how this went down:

2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 tablespoons grated parmigiano reggiano
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 slices of multi grain bread
aged gouda grated
sharp cheddar, grated~ I used my fave, Cabot Vintage Cheddar
chopped roasted red peppers
oil from the jar of roasted peppers
1 egg

Turn on the broiler.
In a small bowl, mix butter, Parmigiano Reggiano, & Dijon mustard then spread completely over two slices of bread. Heat a non-stick skillet to medium-high heat and lay the bread, butter side down into the pan. Cook until the underside is nice and golden toasty.
Transfer the bread (toasty side down) onto a broiler proof pan and top each slice with cheese, getting the cheese right up to the corners of the bread so it doesn't burn like mine did. Set aside for a moment. Wipe any stuck cheese out of the non stick skillet you toasted the bread in, with a paper towel and add the roasted pepper infused olive oil to the pan over medium heat. Crack the egg into a small bowl or teacup, when the oil is hot tip the egg into the pan. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the egg. While the egg is cooking, place the cheese topped bread under the broiler until the cheese melts, 1-2 minutes.  Remove from the broiler, spread one slice with roasted pepper and set aside until the egg is finished cooking. Lay the cooked egg on the second cheesy toast.
Sprinkle with generous pinches of za'atar, or some freshly chopped herbs. Close the book on your sandwich, place it on a plate and using a sharp serrated knife, cut the sandwich in half. Take a moment to enjoy the sight of yolky yellow saucy goodness oozing over the plate. Consume immediately.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

I made Cheese!

I was super excited when this class appeared on the 18 Reasons calender~Homemade Cheddar!  How cool is that? Cheese is my favorite food.
The class was taught by Louella Hill, The Milkmaid.
So here's what went down:

Getting ready to make cheddar. First we taste~on the plate at 1:00: Fresh Tillamook cheddar, moist and buttery. Mild. Supermarket shrink wrap. @4:00 Cabot Vintage Cheddar-one of my favorites-still fairly moist and buttery, much tangier than the Tillamook. This has been my go-to everyday cheese for the last year. It's a wax coated cheese. Aged ??? @8:00 Cabot Clothbound Cheddar or what is also called bandage wrapped. The flavor is so much more intense than the previous cheeses. Finally @10:00 Keen's Cheddar from England. It's got a big moldy veins. YUM! Drier and even more intense than the Cabot. Saltier, savorier. good stuff.
Raw milk is gently heated to 91 degrees, cultured buttermilk is added, then rennet (the enzyme that creates curdling). About 30 minutes later you have a pot of what basically feels like custard. With a knife you start slicing through the custard in straight line cuts a half inch apart, turn the pot 45 degrees and cut again forming 1/2 " grid cuts. Moisture is releasing and here comes the whey.
Then with a flat straining ladle, start making horizontal cuts and gently stir.
After 30 minutes of stirring the curds, and maintaining the 91 degree temperature, break up smaller and smaller until you end up with something that looks like loose cottage cheese, temp increases to 105 and stirred for another 15 minutes.
Drain and place the curd, which has clumped into a large mass, in a large bowl and break apart and crumble with your fingers. The thing that surprised me the most was the sweetness of the whey. It made me very sad to see it go down the sink. Traditional ricotta is made from cooked whey.
The curd is still releasing moisture. The curds are scooped up and put in the straining basket and then pressed.
We got cheese...well sorta. This round was only lightly pressed to form it into a wheel that we could all take a picture of. What really happens is that the curd is left in the press overnight with 50 pounds of weight on it to extract all of the moisture. Aged cheddar has to be super dry so as not to mildew while it ages.
Once the wheel has been compressed overnight, it's left to sit out for a day or two in order to dry out and form a skin.
At this point in the class we were each given a small wheel which had been previously made, so that we could commence with the wrapping. We cut up strips and circles of clean white cotton, dipped the "bandages" in bacon fat and wrapped the cheese to protect the cheese while it ages.
We were given little plastic mesh mats and instructed to age our cheese in a zip lock bag in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator or better yet- in our wine refrigerator <snort>. The cheese needs to be turned every day.
This is called affinage, the care and aging of cheese.Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Oh Joy!

Several years ago I owned about 60+ cookbooks-yet I've never owned this one. I preferred my cookbooks to be big and glossy. Lots of pics. I also had stacks and stacks of magazines and a giant binder bursting with recipes torn out of magazines and recipe cards collected from grocery stores. I never cooked. Once I started cooking I purged all but 20 books and the two cookie magazines I use every Christmas. I made 3 promises to the little kitchen: 1) I will not clutter you with cookbooks, 2) I will cook the books that live within your 28 inches of shelf space, 3) I will walk around the corner to the library for guest cookbooks... but every now and then, a book (or 4) will charm its way onto my shelf.
On the corner (& very close to it) of 17th and Valencia St. in San Francisco's Mission District, are two of my favorite places: El Toro Taqueria and Community Thrift Store.
Whilst killing time Monday night, waiting for my cheesemaking class to start at 18 Reasons, I wandered into Community Thrift hoping to find an old issue of Cooks Illustrated to accompany me and the giant carne asada burrito I planned to devour at my next stop. I headed to the cookbook section. No Cooks Illustrated but I hit the motherlode in cookery books. I happily suspended my moratorium on cookbook purchasing. I really, really did say to myself "self: just buy one. Pick one". I clearly have no self control. In addition to this perfect copy of The Joy of Cooking, I snagged The Fanny Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham (another classic), The Cheese Course by Janet Fletcher (she writes the Cheese Course column for the SF Chronicle), and Chocolate & Zucchini-Recipes from my Paris Kitchen (one of my favorite blogs from one of my favorite cities) all for a whopping grand total of $7.25. Score!
Meanwhile, back in the little kitchen (and kitchens elsewhere), it's been a hotbed of activity but technical difficulties have been causing me to hit a wall when it comes to hitting "publish". 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

shaved vegetable salad

shaved vegetable salad, originally uploaded by michele wynne.
One of the most valuable lessons (so far) I learned in cooking class at 18 Reasons (or The Big Kitchen as like to call it), is the layered salad. This taste-bud tantalizing method of salad building can turn a mountain of veg into an empty plate and a full belly in no time. I never tire of these.
The beauty of this method is that the variety of textures and flavors make each bite taste different- your palate is continuously engaged, as opposed to tossing everything together with your dressing resulting in a salad that can get boring before it's been finished. This is insanely good. By the time I finished building this it was mountainous. I was reading a book while eating and it seemed quite suddenly my plate was empty.

This Shaved Fennel Salad was a riff on the Buttermilk Farro Salad (link below) I made last week from 101 Cookbooks. I had some of those same veggies left and lots of the buttermilk dressing to use up (which I mixed with a little home made mayo). Build the salad on a large plate or a platter, using 1/2 of each ingredient then repeating the layers. This particular salad went down like this:

shaved fennel
shaved black Spanish radish
shaved French breakfast radishes
shaved zucchini coins
sliced toasted almonds
chopped dried cranberries
crumbled goat cheese
buttermilk dressing

Depending on whether the salad is dinner for one or one course of a larger gathering you can scale the number of ingredients up or down.
-Some kind of green: arugula, baby spinach, kale, little gems, spring mix
-2 or 3 (at the most) shaved, thinly sliced or grated vegetables
-toasted nuts
-fruit for sweetness-golden raisins or other dried fruit or mangoes or apples or mandarins
-cheese-goat, feta, shaved parmesan or blue cheese...I like salty cheeses
-dressing drizzled lightly-lemon juice & olive oil work just fine.
Remember to build the salad in two layers.

I've also added avocado or sliced hard boiled eggs to make this a meal.