Sunday, June 29, 2008

Garden Update II

So far, the best part about having a garden has been the smells. Every time I pass by those cinder blocks, I brush my hand over the basil leaves or the tomato vines or the oregano plant, and in just that quick motion, the smells from the leaves get trapped in my palms — it's amazing. In one second I smell as though I've been toiling in the weeds for hours.

I suppose once my garden actually begins producing food consistently, however, eating will become more rewarding than smelling. Thus far, we have eaten a fair amount of zucchini and a ton of Swiss chard. The tomatoes, both the cherry and the heirloom, as you can see, have finally started growing. So have the hot peppers. Soon, just as we had hoped, Ben and I will be able whip up pico de gallo at a moment's notice. Except that we are currently out of cilantro. Our two plants, unfortunately, took a terrible turn.

Also, until I see the tomatoes turn red, I will not be completely excited. Two summers ago, back in Philadelphia, our two tomato plants produced hundreds of tomatoes but they never turned red. I've never prepared so many fried green tomatoes in my life. Which are delicious, but not what I want to eat every night for dinner, you know?

To see the complete transformation, click here: Cinder-Block Garden How-To, and here: Garden Update.

Hot Pepper Plant

Summer Squash


Swiss chard, grown from seed.

Cherry Tomatoes

Bowl of Goodies

View from above — quite a transformation from April 24.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Weekend Baking II: Open-Face Plum Cake

I'm really liking my Sunday morning routine. I get up a little before Ben, find something to bake, and whip it up, or at least have it in the oven, before Ben wakes up. This tradition is now in its fourth week running, and this Sunday I'm planning on making a recipe for a marbled coffee cake printed in the culinary SOS column of the LA Times food section two weeks ago. The recipe is based on Buttercake Bakery's moist butter bundt cake. I can hardly wait to try it. Maybe I'll use that cathedral bundt pan I have failed to use for three years now.

Anyway, about this plum cake. This recipe appeared in a Martha Stewart Living issue last summer, and I have had it filed in the back of my mind ever since. Last Saturday morning, when Ben and I found ourselves in San Diego at the City Heights farmers' market, I found the perfect reason to make this cake: baskets of plums — filled with at least 20 or so — selling for $4. We picked up some peaches, avocados and two red snapper fillets as well before heading home. The plums — sweet and juicy — however, turned out to be the prized purchase. I used ten in this cake, but plenty remained for Ben and me to snack on all week. I ate the last one this morning.

Bette Aaronson, the woman to whom this recipe is credited, has been making this recipe for more than 30 years. I can understand why. It takes only minutes to prepare; it's delectable; it's elegant; and it's versatile: Apricots, nectarines and peaches, it has been noted, can be used in place of the plums. I'm guessing then that pluots, plumcots and apriums would also make acceptable substitutes. I can't believe Martha didn't make that clear. Also, I have halved the recipe — I thought a 9-inch cake for each Ben and me seemed a little excessive — but the original recipe, if you care to see, can be found online: Open-Face Plum Cake.

Open-Face Plum Cake
Adapted from a recipe printed in a summer 2007 Martha Stewart Living
For the recipe doubled, which was how it was printed, visit the Martha Stewart Living Web Site.

Yield = 1 9-inch cake, serves 10

¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
3/8 cup sugar plus 1 tablespoon
¼ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small egg or ½ a large egg
6-10 plums depending on the size, halved and pitted
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus more for the pans

Confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Butter a nine-inch round cake pan. Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, combine the 3/8 cup sugar, milk, oil and egg. Fold into the flour mixture.

2. Pour batter into pan. Arrange plums, cut side up over batter.

3. Combine cinnamon and remaining sugar and sprinkle over the plums. Dot with butter. Bake until tops are dark golden, plums are soft and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool.

4. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Artisan Bread In Five Minutes A Day, Seriously

Last week, NPR aired a brief program about rising food prices and how people are changing their behavior as a result. Listeners called in sharing their money-saving secrets: Some people had begun fishing and hunting, others had begun walking or riding their bikes to market, and others had begun learning to make dishes from scratch. One man resolved to learn how to bake bread.

I thought this last idea sounded a little odd. With bread often being one of the least expensive items at the market, surely, I thought, their are better ways to save money.

I decided to investigate. Over the weekend, I made a visit to Henry's Market (to purchase goat's milk for a rosemary-gelato round two attempt) where I recorded some prices. A one-pound loaf of La Brea bread (the gourmet bread created by Nancy Silverton sold at grocery stores nationwide) costs on average $5.35. (To give you a range, the least expensive La Brea Country White Sourdough loaf cost $3.99 a pound and the most expensive Olive loaf cost $6.99 for 14.5 ounces.) Now, La Brea bread is one of the more expensive varieties of bakery-style bread found at grocery stores, but it's also one of the best, and I've chosen to use it as the measure in this experiment for that reason.

Now, on to Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I've been meaning to open this book since receiving it at Christmas from my father-in-law, who had read about it in this November 2007 NYTimes article: "Soon The Bread Will Be Making Itself". Seriously, after I made the initial batch of starter, the bread took no more than five minutes of active time to prepare. (Plan on a 40 minute rise plus a 30 minute bake). And the result? Five stars. Ben and I ate almost an entire one-pound loaf in one sitting.

Preparing the loaves is so simple that I made bread on both Saturday and Sunday nights of this weekend, and I still have enough starter to prepare two more loaves this week. The starter keeps for at least two weeks in the refrigerator. This method, created by Jeff Hertzberg, a physician from Minneapolis, entails no kneading and can be prepared by the most novice of bread makers. If you have any inkling to learn to make bread or if you are a pro and desire a simpler method, buy this book: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking.

So, what does one of these loaves cost to prepare? Using the price of flour given by the American Farm Bureau — a 5-lb. bag of flour costs on average $2.39 — and prices for yeast and salt listed at Henry's Market — a 3-lb. pound box of kosher salt costs $3.49 and a three-pack of yeast costs $2.39 — a one-pound loaf of homemade artisan bread costs about 60 cents to prepare from scratch. (Flour costs about 3 cents per ounce; yeast, 35 cents per teaspoon; and salt, 1 cent per teaspoon.) Using Henry's Market prices, too, this estimate of 60 cents is likely on the high side.

The average price of a loaf of La Brea bread is almost nine times more expensive. Even the cheapest loaf of bakery-style bread, priced at $1.29 a pound, costs over twice as much as a loaf of homemade bread. Upon closer analysis it seems the man who called into the radio program actually might be on to something.

Even if saving money is not your goal, however, give this recipe a stab purely to experience how truly simple bread making at home can be. I'm dying to try other recipes in this book such as roasted red pepper fougasse, Italian semolina, and sun-dried tomato parmesan but for now, I'm extremely happy with the results of this master boule: It's perfectly salty, moist and airy and delectable all around.

We ate three-quarters of this loaf in one sitting. It's so yummy!

The Master Recipe: Boule
Adapted From Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François
Yield = Four 1-pound loaves. Recipe can be doubled or halved

3 cups lukewarm water
1½ T. granulated yeasts (1½ packets)
1½ T. kosher or other coarse salt
6½ cups (29.25 oz.) unsifted, unbleached, all-purpose white flour,
measured with the scoop-and-sweep method

Mixing and Storing the Dough

1. Warm the water slightly: It should feel just a little warmer than body temperature, about 100ºF.

2. Add yeast and salt to the water in a five-quart bowl, or preferably, in a resealable, lidded (not airtight) plastic food container or food-grade bucket. Don’t worry about getting it all to dissolve. (I added the yeast, then the flour and then the salt on top of the flour to avoid killing any of the yeast, but apparently this is unnecessary.)

3. Mix in the flour: Add all of the flour at once, measuring it with dry-ingredient measuring cups, by gently scooping the flour, then sweeping the top level with a knife or spatula; don’t press down into the flour as you scoop or you’ll throw off the measurement by compressing. Mix with a wooden spoon. If necessary, reach into your mixing vessel with very wet hands and press the mixture together. Don’t knead! It isn’t necessary. You’re finished when everything is uniformly moist, without dry patches. Dough should be wet and loose enough to conform to the shape of the container.

4. Allow to rise: Cover with a lid (not airtight) that fits well to the container you’re using. Allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse (or at least flattens on the top), approximately two hours. You can use a portion of the dough any time after this period, but fully refrigerated dough is less sticky and is easier to work with. So, the first time you try this method, it’s best to refrigerate the dough overnight before shaping a loaf.

On Baking Day:

5. Sprinkle the surface of your refrigerated dough with flour. Pull up and cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-size), using a serrated knife. Hold the mass of dough in your hands and add a little more flour as needed so it won’t stick to your hands. Gently stretch the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. The correctly shaped final product will be smooth and cohesive. The entire process should take no more than 30 to 60 seconds.

6. Place the shaped ball on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel. (If you aren’t planning on baking the bread on a pizza stone, just let the dough rest on a cornmeal-covered cutting board. Allow the loaf (uncovered) to rest on the peel for about 40 minutes.

7. Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450ºF, with a baking stone placed on the lowest rack. (If you don’t have a stone, don’t worry.) Place an empty broiler tray for holding water on any other shelf that won’t interfere with the rising bread. (This helps to make the crust crispy, but your bread will still be delicious if you omit this step.)

8. Dust the top of the loaf liberally with flour, which will allow the slashing knife to pass without sticking. Make several ¼-inch-deep slashes across the bread. (Again, if you omit this step, your bread will taste the same.)

9. With a quick forward jerking motion of the wrist, slide the loaf off the pizza peel and onto the preheated stone. (Alternatively, butter a Pyrex dish or baking pan and place the bread in the pan.) Quickly but carefully pour about one cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray and close the oven door to trap the steam. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned and firm to the touch. Allow to cool completely, preferably on a wire rack.

If you bake frequently, purchase yeast in bulk bags and store in your refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container. You'll save a ton of money:

Here are two shots of an unslashed loaf baked in a buttered one-quart Pyrex dish. The difference in crust texture, in my opinion, is indetectable. If you don't have a pizza stone and don't feel like going through the trouble of a steam tray, this method, outlined in the recipe, works just fine.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Selling Lentil Soup In The Summer and Helping Iowan Farmers

I know this isn't the most summery of soups. Even us Southern Californians are experiencing a bit of a heat wave. So, why would anyone make lentil soup in the summer? It's sort of a hard sell, I'll admit, but I'm going to give it a go.

The 12oz. bag of lentils I purchased cost $3.23. I used about 9 oz. (1½ C.) or $2.42 worth of lentils in this recipe. (As far as lentils go, $3.23 for 12oz. is rather steep. You'll likely pay much less.) Now, I don't have all of my receipts to give an accurate estimate of what this soup costs to prepare, but the remaining ingredients, a mixture of pantry items (vinegar, bay leaf, olive oil, tomato sauce and salt) and vegetables (carrots, celery, onions and garlic) cost next to nothing, even given the crazy-high food prices we are currently facing at the market.

This soup is one of the most economical dishes you could ever prepare. It yields three quarts or eight generous servings. Even if the cost of ingredients totaled $10, which is very unlikely, the cost per serving is only $1.25. Serve it with a loaf of bread and you have a complete meal. Lentil soup and bread for dinner might seem a little Spartan, but the addition of a salad with this meal in a way would be superfluous — this soup is filled with vegetables for one, and lentils themselves are nutritional powerhouses: These little legumes are high in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals and are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates. Also, according to the Web site, The World's Healthiest Foods, one cup of cooked lentils contains just 230 calories.

Have I sold anyone?

I should note that this soup takes little time to prepare — you basically throw all of the ingredients in a pot and let it simmer for an hour — and that it is delicious. This is one of my mother's favorite recipes, passed down, I believe, from her mother, and maybe even from her mother's mother. Am I making this up, mom?

Lastly, the publisher of Edible San Diego, a wonderful magazine "celebrating local food, from coast to crest, season by season" recently informed me about Farm Aid's Family Disaster Fund. Severe flooding in Iowa and Wisconsin is threatening the lives of family farmers and Farm Aid is providing serious help to the region. Click here to read more about Farm Aid or to help the farmers in these states.

A bowl of French green lentils. I have yet to find a source of local lentils, but I can't say I have looked terribly hard. In Philadelphia, one of the vendors at the Sunday Headhouse market sold lentils and they were delicious. I purchased these at a shop in Philadelphia nearly a year ago and they traveled with me across country. Unless you have a local source for lentils, I highly recommend this variety:

Simple Lentil Soup
Yield=3 quarts or 8 generous servings

1½ C. French green lentils
1 8oz. can of tomato sauce, such as Pomi brand
2 large onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
½ C. red wine vinegar
½ C. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. fresh thyme leaves, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 celery stalks, peeled and diced
crushed red pepper flakes to taste

Throw all ingredients together in a pot. Add 1½ qts. plus one cup of water (seven cups total). Simmer for one hour uncovered. Stir and serve with crusty bread. Tastes even better on day two. Keeps for over a week in the refrigerator. Freezes well, too.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Favorite Summer Salad: Shaved Zucchini & Pecorino

There's something about the combination of raw (or briefly blanched) and young (or thinly shaved) vegetables with Pecorino Romano cheese that I find irresistible. Which vegetables meet this criteria? I can name only a few — asparagus (shaved), fennel (shaved), fava beans (briefly blanched) and summer squash (julienned on a mandoline) — but many more exist. When fresh, these vegetables need little more than salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice — no cooking is necessary (with the exception, of course, of the fava beans).

After discovering this zucchini salad last summer, I prepared it often, and on more than one occasion, made myself sick to my stomach. I think raw zucchini might be a little harsh on the stomach? Don't let that deter you, however. Just a little warning.

Now, why Pecorino over Parmigiano? Parmigiano Reggiano would be a fine substitute, but there's something about Pecorino that I'm really liking these days — I think it's its saltiness. Cut it the same way as in the fava bean and pecorino salad: Stick the tip of a big chef's knife right into the block and twist until nice chards break from the block.

Zucchini and Pecorino Salad
Serves 2 as a side dish

1 zucchini, about 8-inches long
Pecorino Romano cheese, to taste
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, halved

1. Shave the zucchini on a mandoline into thin spaghetti-like strips. Place in a bowl. Stick the tip of a big chef's knife into a wedge of Pecorino and twist until nice chards break from the block. Add to the bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle olive oil over the mixture. Squeeze with lemon. Gently toss and serve.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Squash Blossom Obsession

A friend recently reminded me of my several-months-long fixation with quince. I couldn't experiment enough with the exotic fruit. I bought cases and cases and peeled and poached, making jams and pastes and tarts and cakes. And then, I went green and discovered my beloved quince had traveled all the way from Chili. Alas.

Well, I've moved on to squash blossoms. Ever since I learned how to stuff them, batter them and fry them, I've looked forward to the summer growing season, which would bring these delicate flowers to market. In Philadelphia, not every market would carry them, however, and the ones that did, would only bring them every so often. Seeing squash blossoms was always a treat.

Imagine my surprise upon running into this at my Sunday San Clemente farmers' market:

Have you ever scene so many zucchini blossoms in one space at one time? I purchased a half pound for three dollars and set to work. Of course, I battered and fried a few. But I also made something I have been dying to make for years: squash blossom quesadillas. (I even found fresh corn masa at a Mexican market in my town) And with my leftover quesadilla filling, I made a yummy squash-blossom pizza.

Do you know anything about plant sex? Here's a little lesson: Squash flowers are either male or female: male flowers are equipped with a stamen, females with a stigma. Males, more plentiful in number, stand on long, thin stems, while the females, sitting on a small, fuzzy green ball, blossom closer to the vine.

Only when a grain of pollen from the stamen lands on the stigma, will this ball turn into a squash. Pollination occurs when bees or other insects travel from flower to flower, or when the wind blows. Using a brush, humans can fertilize the plant as well by collecting pollen from the stamen and painting it onto the stigma.

But here’s the miracle: Pollination can occur on only one day in a blossom’s entire lifetime. Just before dawn, the flowers uncurl; by midday, they begin to close; and by dusk, they close, precluding pollination forever. Few flowers actually ever bear fruit. I know, I know, home gardeners can't give away enough zucchini during the growing season. I still think it's amazing.

Pictured below are mini zucchini with the female blossom still attached. The Carlsbad farm growing all of these blossoms promises to bring them to the market every weekend all summer long.

As you can see, I'm on a bit of a pizza kick right now as well. Pictured below is the squash-blossom pizza, a male zucchini flower (picked from my garden), and the edge of a pizza topped with thinly shaved rounds of zucchini, grated Pecorino, sliced mozzarella, red pepper flakes and fresh basil, (currently my favorite preparation).

So, incidentally, my male and female zucchini blossoms mated successfully, producing these three zucchini. I cut them from their stems over the weekend, shaved them into long spaghetti-like ribbons with my mandoline, tossed them with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and Pecorino, and ate them raw. This salad is not dissimilar to the fresh fava bean and Pecorino salad posted last month.

I don't have an accurate recipe yet for the squash blossom filling, but I followed instructions given to me by the Carlsbad farmer selling the blossoms and am pretty happy with the results. You basically just sauté an onion until tender, and then add a chopped tomato and the blossoms, and with the pan covered, cook for about five minutes.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Weekend Baking: Blueberry Crumb Coffee Cake

I have been wanting to make rhubarb coffee cake since seeing a recipe posted on the blog Smitten Kitchen in February. I waited and waited to see rhubarb at the farmers' market, but it seems I either missed it or it never arrived.

In any case, I woke up Saturday morning dying to do some baking and craving a piece of coffee cake. I pulled up the SK recipe for Big Crumb Coffee Cake — first printed in Melissa Clark's NY Times' column "Big Appetite" — and decided frozen blueberries would be an acceptable substitute for the rhubarb.

I decided, too, that I wanted the cake to be baked before Ben woke up. I could hear him stirring in the other room and knew I didn't have much time. I set to work, frantically pulling bowls from the cupboards, measuring cups from the drawers and ingredients from the pantry, hoping the thrashing wouldn't expedite his emergence. Before long, the various components of the cake — the sugar-coated berries, the thick, buttery batter and the big-crumb topping — had been prepared and the cake assembled. Before long, too, the smell of warm, stewing blueberries pervaded the apartment, gently tapping on the bedroom door.

As I pulled the cake from the oven, the love of my life — sorry to be such a cheese, but I've been gone for two weekends in a row — walked into the kitchen. Perfect timing. I switched on the coffee, let the cake cool briefly and then tucked in. Yum!

Now, when I make this cake again, I will follow the instructions, and I know the results will be even more pleasing. Where I messed up most was in step two. Step two should result in the creation of a solid dough — the foundation of the "big crumbs" — but instead resulted in a crumbly, small-clump mix. In the end, the topping baked just fine, but the "big crumbs," a critical component to the cake, were few and far between. Yay for next weekend, I'll be home again, likely without rhubarb but with a freezer full of berries, a slightly unsatisfied hunger for coffee cake and hopefully a bit more patience.

Blueberry Crumb Coffee Cake
Adapted from the NY Times’ column "Big Appetite" by Melissa Clark via the blog Smitten Kitchen
Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Butter for greasing pan

For the filling:

½ lb. blueberries
2T. sugar

2 tsp. cornstarch

For the crumbs:

1/3 C. dark brown sugar

1/3 C. granulated sugar

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp. salt

½ C. melted butter

1¾ C. cake flour or all-purpose or whole-grain pastry flour (I used a mix of all three)

For the cake:

1/3 C. sour cream

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 C. cake flour or all-purpose flour
½ C. sugar

½ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

6 T. softened butter, cut into 8 pieces.

1. Preheat oven to 325ºF. Grease an 8-inch-square baking pan. Toss blueberries with sugar and cornstarch. Set aside.

2. To make crumbs, in a large bowl, whisk together sugars, spices, salt and butter until smooth. Stir in flour with a spatula. It will look like a solid dough.

3. To prepare cake, in a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, egg, egg yolk and vanilla. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add butter and a spoonful of sour cream mixture and mix on medium speed until flour is moistened. Increase speed and beat for 30 seconds. Add remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, and scraping down the sides of bowl with a spatula. Scoop out about ½ cup of the batter and set aside.

4. Scrape remaining batter into prepared pan. Spoon blueberries over batter. Dollop set-aside batter over berries; it does not have to be even.

5. Using your fingers, break topping mixture into big crumbs, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch in size. They do not have to be uniform, but make sure most are around that size. Sprinkle over cake. Bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean of batter, 45 to 55 minutes. Cool completely before serving.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Two Things Everyone Should Know

1. You can get a new passport within 24 hours.

Last Friday, I hopped on a plane to Cabo. The Monday before I departed, I discovered my passport had expired in March. After sending a few freakout emails to friends, I began some constructive research on the Internet. For an average price of $200, I discovered, mail-in services will issue new passports within 24 hours. The legitimacy more than the price concerned me.

I searched further and learned that an alternative exists, though this option is more convenient for some than others: If you need a new passport within 14 days of travel, you must make an appointment at one of the 15 Regional Passport Agencies located across the country. One, lucky for me, happens to be in L.A. (From a wise source, I heard that Minnesotans, in a pinch, will fly to Chicago to take care of passport issues.)

For future reference, call 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778) to schedule an appointment. And the official Web site for passport matters is: The expedited services costs $135, but count on spending at least another $50 for food and entertainment while you wait for it to be issued.

2. Digital cameras costing only $9.99 can be purchased at drugstores. And, these cameras come with a little carrying case, a cd and a USB cord. You can judge the quality of the pictures for yourself:

Why would anyone purchase such a camera? Well, last Wednesday, I suddenly found myself in L.A. with five hours to kill. (After I waited in line, filled out the paperwork and turned in all of my documents, I was told to return at 3:00 p.m. to retrieve my little blue book.) The passport agency, I soon discovered, is located just blocks away from the heart of Westwood and UCLA. And before I knew it, I had stumbled into a Pinkberry.

I have heard so much about Pinkberry. I remember reading a NYTimes article about lines of devoted customers extending around the block of the West Hollywood shop. The green-tea flavor sounded exotic, and all of the fruit toppings, fresh and healthy*.

Upon seeing the shop, I became overwhelmed with emotions: excitement, because I had wanted to sample the "swirly goodness" for years; sadness, because I had left my camera at home and would have no way of documenting the moment.

It was 10:00 a.m. when I spotted the shop. I needed to work up a little bit of an appetite, so I walked around UCLA — which is beautiful! — and then up and down the streets of Westwood. I made several phone calls, one to my mother, who suggested I check out a drugstore for a disposable digital camera. She's so smart! CVS had just the device I needed. And, it's not even disposable, though I still haven't figured out how to erase the 20 pictures I have taken.

As you can see, I'm still learning how to center the subject of the photos:

*Recent reports have disclosed that Pinkberry yogurt is not the all-natural wonder once believed, which might explain the absence of any sort of a line when I arrived at the shop. And, though I had a blast tasting it, I'm not sure it deserves all the attention it has received.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Tortillas & Blossoms

I have a vision of the perfect tortilla. It's made of corn, from fresh masa, not masa harina. It's thin. It's soft. And, ideally, it's made to order on a griddle-like surface like the ones served every weekend at the Primavera Mexican stand at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers' Market. Several summers ago on a visit to San Fran for a wedding, Ben and I savored these freshly made tortillas for breakfast, filling them with scrambled eggs, salsa, avocados and cheese.

This meal inspired me to buy one of those tortilla presses and to try to replicate our experience at home. I soon learned, however, the task would be impossible — fresh corn masa was no where to be found in the Philadelphia area. Ben even called a shop in California (after reading an article online), to ask if the masa could be shipped across country. (This was before we went local). The woman refused, however, alleging that the masa would perish en route. I made a batch of tortillas anyway using the Maseca brand masa harina — the product all the local taquerías used as well — but the results proved far from satisfying. As time passed, I gave up my search for fresh masa and settled for store-bought varieties, which tasted far superior to my homemade creations. (Incidentally, if you are interested in learning more about the homemade tortilla making process, read this San Francisco Chronicle article.)

I just returned from a wedding in Baja where the yummy tortillas I ate at every meal reminded me of my bygone quest for the perfect tortilla. At the hotel restaurant, the waiters delivered a basket of warm flour and corn tortillas with every meal to be filled with eggs, fish, beef or whatever. Now, I don't know if it's just that no tortilla will ever measure up to the ones made at the Primavera stand, or if I've changed — I think I prefer flour to corn. I know, I know, corn is more authentic, but there was something about these small, thin, chewy flour tortillas that I could not resist. Alas, it seems my vision of the perfect tortilla may have changed.

How cute is this little zucchini? Each time I walk by my blossom-filled pot, however, I am tempted to rip off the flowers, stuff them with cheese and fry them up. Fortunately, my farmers' market has a limitless supply of these blossoms, and I can resist the urge.

Now, about this non-local, grass-fed beef. I'm embarrassed to name its country of origin, but I had traveled all the way to Jimbo's market with Aunt Vicki and her mother, Sy, and I could not pass up the opportunity to purchase a bit of grass-fed meat. Seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled for three to four minutes a side, tri-tip makes a wonderful taco filling, needing little more than salsa, chopped onion and a splash of lime.

Grass-Fed Tri-tip Tacos
Serves 2 to 3

1 lb. grass-fed tri-tip, flank or skirt steak
kosher salt and peper to taste
6 to 9 soft, corn or flour tortillas
finely diced white onion
chopped cilantro
1 avocado, thinly sliced
pico de gallo
1 limes, quartered
grated cheese (optional)
sour cream (optional)

1. Preheat a grill to high. (Alternatively, place a large frying pan over high heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil.) Season the steaks on all sides with salt and pepper to taste. Preheat the oven to 300ºF. Wrap the tortillas in foil and place in the oven.

2. Place onion, cilantro, avocados, pico de gallo, limes, cheese and sour cream in small bowls. Place in the center of the table.

3. Grill the steaks to desired doneness, then let rest for five minutes. Slice thinly against the grain and pile onto a platter. Remove tortillas from the oven, and place two on each plate. Begin assembling tacos.

Recipe Index

















Ice Cream


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