Tuesday, April 28, 2009

When life gives you lemons

So-called "spring" was short in San Francisco this year, just those few warm days last week when I wrote about tortilla soup. We're back to the usual, with highs in the 50s and intermittent fog, and I burrow under the electric blanket each night. However, there's always the hope of more warm weather (though if the climate fails to comply in the city, Marin and the Peninsula are really only twenty minutes away), and now I'm prepared. Prepared because I have the syrup for lemonade in the fridge ready to be mixed up at a moment's notice.

Harbingers of springtime abound right now: for the Christians, it's Easter; for the pagans (and the Communists?), Mayday; for our new CSA, the packing of strawberries in the box; and for me, several food-related milestones, like the first lemonade of the year and the first al fresco meal. We ate outdoors with B's parents this weekend in Sacramento, but technically our first outdoor meal was a few weeks ago when we were visiting my parents in San Diego. (My mom likes eating outside so much that many years ago my dad bought her outdoor heat lamps for Valentine's Day.)

Though everyone's favorite store (Costco, that is) often carries heat lamps, an easier way to bring springtime indoors is with lemonade. Once you've tasted this fresh-squeezed lemonade, the metallic tang of those lemon-flavored Snapples and Nantucket Nectars and others will become unbearable (don't say I didn't warn you). This lemonade is sweet and cool and refreshing. The recipe was designed with all age groups in mind, as it originated from the Anne of Green Gables Cookbook I had as a child. On reflection, I can't actually remember any scenes with lemonade (though it has been a while since I pored over the book).

The syrup is easy-peasy (equal parts lemon juice, sugar, and water) and, once mixed, stays in the fridge for at least a week. You can also substitute lime juice to make lime-ade (my brother is a particular fan of this iteration), but as I have plenty of Ponderosa lemons from my generous book club host S last Sunday, my next batch will once again be lemonade. It is essential to use fresh citrus for this recipe. Once you've made the syrup, simply dilute three to one with water or soda, garnish with a sprig of mint or rosemary, and drink!

I know the picture below for some reason really looks alcoholic (in other trickery, that glass has straight sides in real life), so you can also add some vodka if you like. Enjoy!


Makes approximately 8 c. lemonade
Time: 20 minutes active, 45 minutes total

For lemon syrup:
5-6 lemons
approximately 1 c. sugar
approximately 1 c. water

For the lemonade:
6 c. still water or soda water
mint or rosemary sprigs, for garnish, leaves slightly bruised if desired

Squeeze lemons, and measure the amount of juice produced (it will be approximately one cup). Set lemon juice aside. In a small saucepan over medium heat, mix together sugar and water to make a 1:1:1 proportion with the measured amount of lemon juice. Once sugar is completely dissolved, turn off heat. Allow simple syrup to cool (approximately twenty minutes, or longer). Mix lemon juice with simple syrup and refrigerate, tightly-covered (syrup will keep for at least one week).

When ready to make lemonade, mix together lemon syrup and water in a 1:3 proportion (that is, 1/4 c. syrup for every 3/4 c. water). Add plenty of ice. Garnish with mint or rosemary, if desired.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Red Hot Chile Peppers

I know it's been awhile since I've updated the blog; I apologize. Thanks to the freedom afforded by an outpatient month with free weekends and some vacation time, B and I have been traveling a fair amount. First we went to Santa Fe (for fun), then San Diego (for a parental visit), then back to San Francisco (for the workweek), then down to Los Angeles (for a wedding), and now home again (back for work and, of course, blogging).

I hadn't been to New Mexico in about fifteen years (a.k.a. half my lifetime). What a fascinating place! From the Georgia O'Keeffe museum (a veritable gem), to the beautiful handmade Native American jewelry, to the dry, windswept mountains and plains, to the fascinating nuclear history, to the Pueblo Indian ruins, to the petroglyphs (did I mention that I love national parks, or was it obvious?): wow.

All over Santa Fe, we saw hanging dried chiles. They are called ristras, and bring good luck and visitors to homes or establishments that display them.

The ristras are also useful when the component chiles are employed in their primary purpose: cooking. Not surprisingly, chiles pervade the cuisine of New Mexico. Sometimes they are picked green (to make green chile sauce) and sometimes red (to make red chile sauce). Though each color reportedly has strong advocates, the more indecisive among us can ask for, say, a serving of enchiladas either "Christmas-style" or "divorciados" to get both colors and flavors on one plate. B and I chose this option more than once.

But now B and I are back from our various adventures. And now that we are, the weather has been truly unbelievable. I don't think it's global warming, or at least I hope not, but this is the third year in a row with a beautifully warm weekend in April. The temperature rose above 90 degrees (NINETY!) in my everlastingly sixty-degree city today. Note: San Francisco houses weren't built for these sorts of temperature extremes. It is often drafty in here in the winter, and just now is it starting to feel slightly less oppressive indoors. The weather makes me miss Palo Alto. And makes me down even more iced tea than usual.

It also makes me want to avoid the oven. I used the stove instead, and made a batch of tortilla soup. So many soups are better with a little crunch (think of the croutons topping a hearty minestrone), and the freshly-fried tortilla strips are a deliciously crispy counterpoint to the rich soup. Even though I'd made this recipe before, the smoky heat of the New Mexico chiles took me right back to vacationland. There's a part of me that really enjoys spicy food when it's hot outside (I guess the entire subcontinent feels this way too, or we wouldn't have such interesting flavors and spice in Indian cuisine). The avocado relish puts a fresh, California-style spin on a classic soup, and allows the brightness of fresh cilantro to shine through. With the relish, the colors of the soup will end up being "Christmas-style," even if the recipe really only uses dried red chiles.

The soup is a little time-consuming, but the effort required to fry tortilla strips for the garnish is exemplified in their superior taste. (Apparently, I'm a big fan of fried food.) The rest of the steps, including broiling the tomatoes and onion for the base, toasting and soaking the dried chiles, simmering the tortilla-laden broth, and tossing together the avocado garnish, are individually quick and follow logically upon each other. The soup benefits from good-quality chiles; look for deep red ones about four or five inches long. The ones I buy are generically labeled as "From New Mexico," but you can also use ancho or guajillo or a mix as the original Gourmet recipe calls for. Using four, as I recommend below, will make a spicy soup, but you can certainly halve the number to two. The leftover soup and garnish keep well in the fridge up to a week, and the strips will stay crispy inside a Ziploc for about the same amount of time, allowing for repeat, reheated trips to vacationland. Enjoy!

Tortilla Soup

Serves: 6 as a first-course or 4 as a main dish
Time: one and a half hours

For the soup:
1 white or yellow onion, peeled and quartered
5 plum tomatoes
6 garlic cloves, peeled
4 dried New Mexico chiles
8 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon kosher salt
12 white corn tortillas
vegetable oil, for frying

For the avocado relish:
1 1/2 to 2 ripe avocados, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 white or yellow onion, finely chopped
2 T. fresh cilantro, chopped
juice of 1/2 lime
1 t. salt

First, broil the vegetables. Preheat broiler. Meanwhile, place onion, tomatoes, and garlic in one layer in an ovenproof pan (I use a Pyrex dish). Broil several inches from heat, turning once, until tomato skins are blistered and charred, approximately 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove stems and seeds from chiles while heating a large soup pot over moderate heat. Toast chiles, pressing down with tongs, ten seconds on each side, or until more pliable and beginning to become fragrant. Transfer chiles to a bowl. Cover with hot water and soak for about 20 minutes to soften further.

Drain chiles, discarding soaking liquid, and puree with broiled vegetables in a blender or Cuisinart until smooth, using caution when blending hot liquids. Return mixture to soup pot, along with chicken stock, oregano, and salt, simmering slowly.

Cut 6 tortillas into quarters and 6 into 1/4-inch-wide strips. In a large wok or deep-fryer, heat vegetable oil to 375 degrees. Fry tortilla quarters and strips in batches, turning frequently, until crisp and pale golden. With tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle tortilla strips with salt to taste. Finely crush tortilla quarters with a rolling pin or your fingers, and add to stock and broiled vegetable puree. Simmer until tortillas are soft and soup is thickened, 20 to 30 minutes.

Make relish while soup is simmering, by gently stirring together all ingredients in a small bowl.

Ladle soup into each bowl. Spoon two tablespoons or so of avocado relish on top, and arrange tortilla strips. Serve immediately.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Fry, fry again

Oh, Nancy. You're such a talented baker and an excellent cookbook-writer. Your turns of phrase are inspiring and sometimes laugh-out-loud amusing. Or, in this case, both: "For the rushed doughnut maker, these cake doughnuts are a quick fix."

Why, you've captured my recipe sensibility perfectly, Nancy! These old-fashioned buttermilk cake doughnuts of yours, these bits of fried goodness that underline the importance of the dough in the doughnut, are so quick and easy that I can't believe I didn't make them the first time I read the description of the recipe in Pastries from the La Brea Bakery. How could I wait so long to make a recipe for the "rushed doughnut maker?"

Actually, I admit that I do know why I waited. Frankly, I was worried that what might be quick for you, Nancy Silverton, would be prohibitively time-consuming for me. You have all day to putter around in the kitchen and write cookbooks and open fantastic restaurants with Mario Batali and fry doughnuts to your heart's content, whereas I have only a snatched hour here or there between overnight calls in the hospital in which to binge-cook, limited significantly by only having one oven.

And, to top it all off, this so-called quick doughnut recipe calls for yeast. Yeast! Yeast equals time-consuming. Except, I'm pleased to inform you, in this recipe. Yeast is but an adjunct to the baking powder and baking soda, and Nancy adds it, she says, for "lightness." These doughnuts are light, which seems like an odd, if desirable, attribute for a cake doughnut. Other desirable attributes: the spice of nutmeg throughout the batter, the crispness of the fried exterior, the sweetness of the powdered sugar or cinnamon-sugar topping.

I like these doughnuts so much that I've made them twice this week. (I think the fact that I just finished my inpatient cardiology rotation, on which I checked a cholesterol panel on nearly every patient the day of his/her admission for chest pain, is unrelated, but I'm not sure.) I've halved the recipe both times (fifteen doughnuts seemed like a few too many for me and B to share), which required a little bit of adjustment with the ingredients. It is very difficult to halve an egg! Mom, prepare to be horrified: I don't follow recipes exactly as they are written the first time I make them.

Even worse, prepare for mother-horrifying fact number two. Sometimes (O.K., most of the time) I don't measure very precisely when I'm baking. I know that I'm supposed to scoop the flour from the bin and level it off with the back of a knife, but at one point, by now many years ago, I didn't. And you know what? The cookies or cake or doughnuts or whatever I made turned out fine. I don't even own a sifter right now; I just use high-quality flour and add a little bit less of it when a recipe calls for sifted flour (generally, the guideline is to subtract 1/8 c. from each full cup of flour). I'm sure these factoids will also horrify JMc, who uses a measuring spoon to figure out how much to salt her pasta water. Of course, now that I've settled on a good combination of ingredients for these doughnuts, I promise that I will be more precise in the future.

Mother-horrifying fact number three: I occasionally reuse my frying oil. Per my mother the physician, though not substantiated on several internet searches I have done, once oil is brought to a certain temperature once, it irreversibly forms esters which are in some way hazardous to your health. Even though there's now a place in eco-friendly San Francisco to drop off used cooking oil, it seems wasteful to only use the oil once. Which is why I had to make the doughnuts again, while I still had oil out. I have a deep-fryer, thanks to J and B, but I actually used my cast-iron wok. This picture of the doughnuts is very "fire burn and cauldron bubble," don't you think?

Regardless of how you fry them, don't miss out on these doughnuts. They are best when eaten immediately and warm (which makes me think of the fried dough at the fairground, straight from the oil to your hand--but these doughnuts are infinitely better, especially since I'm pretty sure the idea of only using the oil once or twice would be anathema to the funnel-cake purveyors). Enjoy!

Cake Doughnuts in a Rush
Adapted from Nancy Silverton's Pastries from the La Brea Bakery

Makes: 8 doughnuts, plus a few doughnut holes
Time: 30 min active and total

1 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 c. plus 2 T. sugar
1/4 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 to 1 t. freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
1/2 t. active dry yeast
2 T. sour cream, at room temperature
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 egg
1 t. vanilla extract
canola oil, for frying
1/4 c. powdered sugar, or 1/2 c. granulated sugar mixed with 1 t. ground cinnamon

Heat the oil to 375 degrees. While the oil is heating, mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg in a medium mixing bowl. Make a well in the center. Add the yeast to the well, and place the sour cream on top. Let sit for 1 min. Then pour the buttermilk, egg, and vanilla in the well. Whisk the wet ingredients together, gradually whisking to incorporate the dry ingredients as well. The dough will be very sticky.

Place dough onto a floured surface. Place more flour on top of the dough, and pat out to a 1/2-inch thickness. Dip a 2 1/2-in round cookie cutter into flour and cut out the doughnuts. Use a 1/2 in cutter to cut out the holes. Place doughnuts and holes on a floured surface. Gather scraps together, pat into 1/2-in thickness, and cut out more doughnuts and holes.

Fry the doughnuts and holes in two batches for 1-2 min on each side until crisp and browned. Drain on paper towels. Allow oil to come back up to 375 degrees between batches. Sift powdered sugar over the tops of the doughnuts when cool, or roll in cinnamon-sugar mixture while still warm. Serve immediately for maximal enjoyment.