FRIED PLANTAINS with SPICED SHRIMP & AVOCADO

It was 2006. I’d graduated from Duke (before the lacrosse scandal, people) and had been living in Washington DC working my first “real” job. Tired of the huge vats of pasta with red sauce, frozen bags of dumplings, and shriveled rotisserie birds that had become my go-to meals, I remember coming across this recipe in the New York Times –Tostones with Shrimp in Ajilimójili Sauce. WTF?! I saw it as a challenge. My roommates were skeptical as the heavy aroma of fried plantains filled our tiny apartment (okay, I was skeptical too), but dude!– it ended up working. Now whenever I see plantains, that first foray into adventurous cooking rushes back, fresh as ever.

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FRIED PLANTAINS (TOSTONES) with SPICED SHRIMP, AVOCADO & LIME    

adapted from this New York Times recipe, for 6 generous appetizer servings:
about 1/2 a cup of ketchup or Spanish-style tomato sauce
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon of Sazon sin achiote seasoning (optional)
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons Aleppo pepper or hot sauce to taste
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
5-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 1/2 pounds of shrimp (peeled, deveined, chopped)
juice from 2-3 limes
3 large ripe avocados (peeled, pitted, cubed)
3 large green plantains (peeled, sliced in 1.5 to 2-inch medallions)
round cookie cutters
canola oil for frying
kosher salt

In a medium bowl, combine the ketchup, honey, Sazon seasoning, Aleppo pepper or hot sauce, salt, and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning. Set this sauce aside. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the butter and oil on medium-high flame. Add the garlic until it begins to color. Add the chopped shrimp and saute for a minute. Add the sauce and stir to combine. Saute until all the shrimp are no longer translucent, about 3-4 minutes more. Transfer the shrimp to a bowl and set aside. Drizzle the lime juice between both the shrimp and the avocados.

Meanwhile, heat about 1-2 inches of canola oil on medium-high flame in a pot with a high rim, leaving at least 4 inches at the top for safety. When the oil is hot, add the plantains in batches taking care not to overcrowd. (The first plantain is the sacrificial lamb; if the oil isn’t hot enough, it will just sit there without stirring any bubbles) Use a slotted spoon or tongs to flip the plantains. When they begin to turn golden, carefully lift them from the oil and transfer them to a working surface. Place one plantain medallion at a time into a cookie cutter and use the bottom of a jar to press the medallion into a flat disc. Return the plantain discs to the oil and fry until nicely golden brown. Transfer to a platter lined with a paper towel to drain (they will crisp up as they cool a bit). Season with salt. Repeat until all the plantain medallions are done.

To assemble, place one of the tostones into a cookie cutter, spoon some of the avocado over it, then spoon some of the shrimp over the avocado. Top with another of the tostones. (If necessary, use two cookie cutter taped together) Carefully remove the cookie cutters. Serve immediately with a lime wedge.

SALMONBERRY NAPOLEONS

Foraging isn’t something I get to do very much in Los Angeles. I’ll occasionally notice watercress growing in a stream in the San Gabriel mountains or miner’s lettuce along the side of a trail, but it’s not like I’m going hunting for chanterelles in Griffith Park. There are no blueberry patches in Topanga Canyon (there are wild prickly cucumbers but these are not readily edible). The bivalves that can be found on certain L.A. beaches are lone survivors of perpetual urban runoff; they should be left alone.

So when a carton of pale orange berries caught my eye at the farmer’s market, I felt something like a forager’s high. “Salmonberries,” I was told. “Salmonberries?” I asked. With just a sliver of a smile, this sly fox shook his head and waited for my reaction. I could tell he was an old hand at this dialogue.

In 31 years, I’d neither encountered nor heard of salmonberries. I suspected that they were a newfangled concoction of the agricultural elite, a new way to take advantage of people’s willingness to pay exorbitantly for a handful of pretty berries. Thankfully I was wrong. For the fine people (and bears) of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, the salmonberry is found in the wild. Accordingly, it is prized. Asking 5 dollars for these rare gems – with a most delicate floral sweetness, that naïve color, and only a faint memory of its raspy cousin – these are worth every penny.

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SALMONBERRY “NAPOLEON”

for about 6 servings:
8 sheets of phyllo dough
about ½ cup of unsalted butter, melted
about ½ cup of granulated sugar
1 pint of salmonberries (or raspberries)
1 pint of heavy whipping cream, very cold
6-8 teaspoons confectioner’s sugar, plus more for dusting
½ teaspoon fine vanilla extract

*True Napoleons (mille-feuilles) have pastry cream and fondant. In order to not overpower the salmonberries, I substituted with whipped cream.

Heat oven to 375. Lightly oil a large baking sheet. Stack the phyllo sheets on a working surface. Working with one sheet at a time, brush one side of the dough with melted butter and sprinkle it with granulated sugar. Layer another sheet of phyllo over it, and repeat with the butter and sugar. Do this until all of the sheets are stacked. Gently press the phyllo sheets together. Use a knife or round cookie cutter to make 12 squares or rounds. Bake until the phyllo is golden about 10 minutes. Transfer to wire racks and cool completely.

Meanwhile whip the heavy cream, confectioner’s sugar, and vanilla together until stiff peaks form, about 7-8 minutes by hand.

To assemble, dust the phyllo layers with confectioner’s sugar. Spoon some of the whipping cream onto 6 of the phyllo layers, then place 6-7 salmonberries on top of the cream. Add a dollop of cream in the center over the salmonberries, then add another phyllo layer. Top again with cream and salmonberries. Serve immediately.

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HEN OF THE WOODS TOAST with FRESNO CHILE, LIME & CREME FRAICHE

If there was a single restaurant in Los Angeles that I could choose to be my personal chef (daydream much?), it’d be Gjelina in Venice. The dishes they make — rustic, flavorful, simply prepared and presented — always allow the ingredients to speak for themselves. This mushroom toast is inspired by Gjelina. The knockout combination of chiles, lime, and creme fraiche takes an already superlative pairing — charred bread and crisp, woodsy mushrooms — to a whole other level. It’s the most primitively satisfying thing I’ve prepared in many months.

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HEN OF THE WOODS TOAST with FRESNO CHILE, LIME and CREME FRAICHE 

for 4-5 generous servings:
1 excellent loaf of rustic bread, sliced diagonally 3/4 -inch thick
extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced in half
1 large fresno chile, finely minced
1 bundle of chives, thinly sliced
1 cup of creme fraiche
2 teaspoons lime zest, plus more for garnish
3-4 clumps of maitake (hen of the woods) mushrooms, cleaned and completely dry
fresh juice of 1-2 limes
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Heat a charcoal grill or turn your oven’s broiler on. Generously brush the slices of bread with olive oil, rub the garlic cloves all over the bread, and set this aside. Prepare the chile and chives. Combine the creme fraiche with the lime zest. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil in a nonstick skillet until almost smoking. Add the mushrooms, breaking the clumps down with your fingers and discarding the very bottom part of the clump. Be careful not to overcrowd, which will cause the mushrooms to release liquid. Saute the mushrooms until they are crisp and golden brown, about 6-8 minutes depending on your stove. Repeat to finish crisping the mushrooms. During your last batch, grill or broil the bread briefly so that it is slightly burnt around the edges. To assemble, spoon some creme fraiche onto the bread. Toss the mushrooms with fresh lime juice, salt, and pepper to taste and spoon the seasoned mushrooms over the bread. Sprinkle the chives, chiles, and lime zest over the top and finish with a drizzle of creme fraiche.

LEMON VERBENA & RICOTTA DOUGHNUTS with BLACKBERRY SAUCE

Time for confessions. First of all, I trimmed these donuts. I trimmed their flailing arms, cowlicks, and hats off like a high-speed amusement park ride. The price of beauty, as they say. Turns out that making rotund donuts at home takes a bit of practice (and with some batters, you’ll just want to embrace the doughnut appendages).

Secondly, I lifted the idea for these doughnuts from last week’s Chez Panisse menu, when their kitchen was turning out lemon verbena profiteroles. My version riffs on a ricotta doughnut — fragrant, fluffy, the ideal vehicle for sopping up this blackberry sauce. If laughter from playing games in a garden had a specific taste, this would have to be it.

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LEMON VERBENA and RICOTTA DOUGHNUTS with BLACKBERRY SAUCE 

for 12-15 doughnuts, recipe based on Gale Gand’s:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
8 oz whole milk ricotta
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons fresh lemon verbena leaves, very finely chopped
canola oil for frying
confectioner’s sugar for dusting

for the blackberry dipping sauce:
about 2 cups of blackberries
fresh juice from half a lemon
about 1/2 cup of sugar, more to taste
about 1 cup of plain greek yogurt

(Note that this dipping sauce is essentially improvised, so feel free to take liberties with it!) To make the dipping sauce, combine the blackberries, lemon, and sugar in a small pot until the blackberries begin to release liquid. Use a spoon to smash the blackberries and let the mixture simmer for a few minutes. Adjust lemon and sugar as you prefer. Carefully transfer to a blender and pulse. Strain this mixture to remove the blackberry seeds. Stir in the yogurt until the taste and color is as you like it. Set this sauce in the refrigerator to chill.

Sift the flour and baking powder together in a bowl. Add the sugar, eggs, ricotta, vanilla, lemon zest, and lemon verbena and mix well until smooth. Let this site at room temperature. Pour the oil into a deep, heavy pot leaving at least 4 inches at the top for safety. Heat the oil on medium heat until it reaches 325-375 F. Fry a test donut using an ice cream scoop or spoon to drop the batter into the oil. Turning the donut immediately will help it to achieve a round shape. Use a slotted spoon to turn it until it is golden brown all around, about 3-4 minutes. If it browns too quickly, turn the heat down (or else the outside will be too brown and the inside won’t be cooked through). When a test donut comes out the way you like it, continue frying the donuts being careful not to crowd. Transfer the completed donuts to a platter lined with a paper towel. Dust the donuts with confectioner’s sugar and serve immediately with the blackberry dipping sauce.

CORN RAVIOLI with PANCETTA & SAGE

Me: It started with reading Omnivore’s Dilemma — I internalized a zealot’s distaste for corn. For all its versatility in the production of industrialized foodstuff – from the unseen glue in a Chicken McNugget to the soul of Coca-Cola, I came to see corn as enemy to all that was good about food. That romanticized heartland descriptor, “corn-fed,” assumed an insidious irony.

You: Dude, what baggage!

Me: Tell me about it.

You: Loosen up.

And there it is, the mantra that cures all. Why shouldn’t corn sit in a privileged place next to tomatoes, chard, virginal radishes? This ravioli makes a persuasive case. It causes me to release the angst typical of a someone who’s just read anything with the word “Dilemma” in its title. The corn flavor here is clear and true. Instead of cloying, its sweetness is a foil to salty pancetta, pungent sage, and the zing of Aleppo pepper. Truth be told, these were supposed to be agnolotti, but it was my first time making pasta like this and I slipped seamlessly into the bosom of Mother Ravioli.

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SWEET CORN RAVIOLI with PANCETTA, SAGE & ALEPPO MASCARPONE  

ravioli filling recipe recipe by Wolfgang Puck:
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups white corn, grated from about 4 ears
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 ounce goat cheese
3 ounces mascarpone
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves, minced

pasta dough recipe by Mario Batali:
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 eggs

for assembly:
chicken broth to boil the ravioli
1/3 pound of pancetta, diced
1/3 cup of corn kernels
4 ounces unsalted butter
1/2 cup of mascarpone
1/2 cup chicken stock
1-2 teaspoons dried Aleppo pepper
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
handful of smaller sage leaves, briefly fried

In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, bring the cream to a boil and reduce until about 1/3 cup remains. Stir in the corn, salt, pepper, and sugar and stir constantly until the mixture reduces and is thick enough to coat a spoon. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese and thyme. Adjust seasoning to taste. Place bowl over an ice bath (or in the refrigerator) to set the filling.

For the pasta dough, mound the flour in the center of a large wooden board (or a countertop). Make a well in the center of the flour and add the eggs. Use a fork to beat the eggs together and gradually incorporate the flour, starting with the inner rim of the well, then moving outward. When half the flour is incorporated, the dough will begin to come together. Start kneading the dough using the palms of your hands. Once the dough is cohesive, set the dough aside and discard any dried bits. Continue kneading for 10 minutes. The dough should be elastic and a little sticky. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature before using.

When both the dough and filling are ready to use, run the dough through a pasta machine to make pasta sheets. Follow this tutorial to make the ravioli. I like to briefly freeze the ravioli in advance of assembly in order to prepare the other ingredients. In a skillet, saute the pancetta until it is crispy and nicely colored. Add the corn kernels and saute for a few more minutes. Add the butter, mascarpone, and Aleppo pepper and stir until incorporated. Set this skillet aside. Bring a pot of slightly salted water to a boil. Add the ravioli and cook for 2-3 minutes until al dente (slightly longer if frozen). Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cooked ravioli to the pancetta-corn-sauce mixture on medium heat. Gradually add chicken stock until you reach the desired consistency (the sauce should quickly reduce to coat the ravioli). Season with sea salt. Dish the ravioli, top with pancetta and corn from the skillet, and top with fried sage leaves and freshly ground black pepper.

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HEIRLOOM TOMATO TART

Flaky tart crust. Caramelized shallots. Pesto. Fresh mozzarella. Sliced heirloom tomatoes. Sea salt. The possibility of peace. Layered in that order. Spread the word.

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HEIRLOOM TOMATO TART with MOZZARELLA, PESTO, AND CARAMELIZED SHALLOTS 

for the tart dough, recipe by Alice Waters:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
6 tablespoons ice water
one 11 inch tart pan with removable bottom

for the pesto, recipe by Mario Batali:
2 cups fresh basil leaves
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup grated pecorino or parmigiano
10 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
a pinch of sea salt

for assembly:
6-8 heirloom tomatoes, different colors and sizes, sliced 1/3 inch thick
2-3 fresh mozzarella, fist-sized, sliced 1/3 inch thick
1 1/2 cups shallots, peeled and diced
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

For the tart dough, stir the flour and salt in a bowl. Work the butter into the flour with a fork or your fingertips until it resembles a coarse meal with bits of cold butter intact. Sprinkle in the ice water while mixing with the fork until the dough comes together. Add more ice water if necessary. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic, and chill for an hour.

Meanwhile, combine all the ingredients for the pesto in a blender or food processor and pulse until incorporated. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a nonstick skillet on medium-low flame. Add the shallots and saute until caramelized, about 15 minutes. Set the shallots aside.

Heat the oven to 375. Butter and flour an 11-inch tart pan. Roll out the tart dough to about 1/4 inch thickness and lay it over the tart pan. Press the dough into the bottom of the tart pan, then use  your fingers to press the dough into the sides, removing excess dough as you go. Patch the dough as necessary. Place the tart pan onto a baking sheet, cover the dough with foil and pie weights (or beans), and bake for 15-20 minutes until the crust is nicely golden brown (remove the foil and weights around 10 minutes in).

When the tart crust is cooled, spread the shallots over the bottom of the tart, followed by a layer of pesto and sliced mozzarella. Carefully arrange the sliced tomatoes over the mozzarella, color by color. Finish with sea salt. The tart is best served immediately, when the crust is warm but the tomatoes are chilled.

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BLUE CRAB GLASS NOODLES

You’ll find a recipe for this dish down below, but this one’s all about improvising. You can make something like it with whatever you have on hand. In my case, it was crab leftover from crab cakes, a green apple, green onions, and green chiles. I finagled a sour and spicy marinade. Tossed with a wild tangle of glass noodles, it reminded me of the perfectly disheveled look that Los Angeles can’t seem to shake.

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BLUE CRAB GLASS NOODLES
green apple, green onion, green thai chiles

for 4 servings:
4 oz. glass noodles, soaked in cold water 30 mins.
4 oz. cooked blue crab meat
1/4 cup finely diced green apple
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
3-4 thinly sliced green Thai chiles

marinating the glass noodles:
4 tablespoons hot chicken stock
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons soy sauce, to taste
1/2 teaspoon oyster sauce
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon red chili oil

Combine the wet ingredients for the marinade in a bowl. Taste and adjust accordingly. Bring a medium pot of water to a simmer and add the glass noodles, cooking for several minutes until just tender. Rinse the glass noodles under cold water and drain well. Transfer the noodles to a larger bowl. Add the marinade and let the noodles sit for 5-10 minutes. Pour out any extra liquid that collects at the bottom of the bowl. Add the crab, apple, green onions, and chiles. Toss to combine and serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

CRUSHED BUT NOT BROKEN

I don’t know how it happened, but I love that it did. After a dizzying array of superlative dishes — octopus, mozzarella, duck ragu gnocchi, sweet corn ravioli, rabbit, short rib — the dish that won my deepest admiration for Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles was a humble side dish (contorni) of fried potatoes with rosemary. This was the dish that I kept revisiting in my mind, weeks later. The potatoes were crunchy then soft, intensely fragrant then deeply savory. Seems simple, but you just don’t find potatoes done like this all around town. The key here is that the potatoes are crushed-but-not-broken, that transitional state at which potatoes, like humans, seem to shine brightest.

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FRIED POTATOES with ROSEMARY & SMOKED SEA SALT

inspired by Osteria Mozza, adapted from a recipe by Nancy Silverton:
about 2 pounds of small potatoes, eg. fingerling
1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
about 1/4 cup fresh rosemary, stems removed and roughly chopped
1/2 tsp (smoked, optional) coarse sea salt or more to taste
freshly cracked black pepper

Microwave the potatoes for 3-4 minutes until slightly softened. Use the flat side of a cleaver or chef’s knife to smash each potato to about 1/2-inch thickness but still intact. Heat the oven to 400. Meanwhile on the stovetop, heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the butter bubbles, add the potatoes but avoid crowding. When the potatoes are golden brown, add a portion of the rosemary leaves. After 30 seconds, use a strainer to transfer the potatoes and rosemary to a wire rack or a dish lined with a paper towel. Repeat in batches until done. If the potatoes are not fully crisp, transfer them to a baking pan and place in the oven until crispy. Toss with any remaining fried rosemary, sea salt, and pepper. Serve immediately.

MISO BLACK COD

Black cod is my Achilles heel. Whenever I see it at a fishmonger, I submit. This preparation popularized by Nobu is the reason. Miso, mirin, sake, and sugar — simple and painfully good. I’ve paired it with poached tomatoes that’ve been touched with the heat of a jalapeno.

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MISO BLACK COD with JALAPENO POACHED TOMATOES

adapted from recipe by Nobu Matushisa, for 4-6 servings:
3 tablespoons mirin
3 tablespoons sake
1/2 cup white miso paste
1/3 cup sugar
4-6 black cod fillets, about 6 ounces each
canola oil for cooking
a bundle of scallions, finely sliced
about 2 cups of small golden tomatoes
1 whole jalapeno, finely minced

In a small saucepan, bring the mirin, sake, miso paste, and sugar to a simmer. Transfer to a baking dish and let cool completely. Add the cod fillets and let marinate at least 3 hours or overnight.

To poach the tomatoes, heat water in a saucepan. When it is simmering, add the tomatoes for a minute. Remove the tomatoes from the water and rinse with cold water. Use a slice a cross-hatch on one end of the tomatoes, then gently peel off the tomato skin. Toss the poached tomatoes with the minced jalapeno, let sit for 30 minutes, then rinse the tomatoes with warm water to remove the jalapenos. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400. Scrape the marinade off the cod fillets and coat them with oil. Sear them in a hot pan for 2 minutes until browned, then transfer to the oven for about 10 minutes. (Alternatively, it is fine to place the fillets under a broiler for 1-2 minutes then reduce heat to 400) Serve immediately alongside chilled tomatoes. Garnish with scallions.