Friday, April 30, 2010

easter and the revolution

Why yes, it is another blog post about the food project.  I need to catch up so that maybe I'll write about something else someday.

Easter was at the beginning of April and served as the perfect occasion to make some more new things for week 7.  I wanted something that felt seasonal and springy, so I suggested we look in David Tanis' cookbook A Platter of Figs for some recipes.  The book is divided into sections with a few three-course menus for each season.  Since Steve was already gravitating towards some sort of lamb for Easter, we decided on the "Supper of Lamb" menu.

The centerpiece was, of course, lamb.  It was supposed to be a shoulder of spring lamb, but Steve picked up a leg from the same bin at Marin Sun Farms (Ferry Building farmer's market) by mistake.  Luckily, they were pretty interchangeable for this purpose.  Steve roasted it up, made some flageolet beans, and served it all with an olive tapenade.  The roast could have been a little rarer, and we put too much parsley on it for the picture, but it was quite good overall.

The picture for this one seemed a lot more difficult than other weeks.  Something about the platter we used and how I had it set up just wasn't working for me compositionally.  Looking on my laptop later, I didn't really like any of the shots I had taken.  Then, I played around with the pictures a little.  I rotated and flipped some of the overhead ones until they finally looked right.  Below is one such picture.  It still doesn't look perfect to me, but it's less awkward than it was.  It ended up being the official picture for the week, because it showed the main dish the best.
Since it was a special occasion, Steve and I also decided to open one of our fancy wine club wines from Kuleto Estate: Frog Prince Cabernet Sauvignon.  It looked good in the glass, so I stopped to take one more picture of the plated lamb with it before we ate.
But as I mentioned before, this menu had three courses.  The dessert was a Rum Baba with Cardamom, which turned out tasty but with a wonky texture from Steve fudging the instructions on the cake.  The light was leaving by then, so I didn't bother taking a picture of it.  I figured I could take one if we try it again sometime.  Both the pictures and the dessert are bound to turn out better the next time.

The first course was supposed to be asparagus with vinaigrette, but we substituted the recipe in the book with a Mario Batali asparagus recipe.  In this one, the asparagus was wrapped in pancetta before cooking and served with a citronette (like a vinaigrette with citrus).  That sounded more exciting than the recipe in A Platter of Figs.  The excitement of the pancetta falling off the asparagus during the cooking wasn't exactly what we had in mind, but the flavors were there.  We picked the few decent ones to line up for a picture, but we ended up with a mess of pancetta and asparagus that did not get photographed.
Around that time, we started watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution on TV.  It was an interesting look at the way most people (specifically children) eat in the US.  It's probably safe to say that we eat better than a good percentage of the people featured, but it was a nice reminder about all those Jamie Oliver cookbooks we have and don't always use.

We broke out Jamie's Italy for week 8 and landed in the risotto section.  Cauliflower risotto sounded good; combining cheesy risotto with cheesy cauliflower had to be pretty tasty.  Spicy, crunchy bread crumbs on top?  Even better.  Unfortunately, it seemed to be missing something when we actually tasted it.  Adding salt and more bread crumbs certainly helped, but even then I wanted another cheese of some sort to round out the flavor.  Parmesan alone was too sharp.  It got salty, but there was no depth.  I think a different melty white cheese would have helped.

I took the picture for this one on our dining room table.  It was a welcome change from the white-on-white of previous weeks' photos.  I don't particularly like our dining room table, but it conveniently blends well with our floor in pictures like this.

The final dish for this installment also came from Jamie's Italy.  In fact, it was a runner-up in the previous week's decision of what to make.  I've been on a bit of a calamari kick lately.  It's healthy, sustainable, and more novel than the typical fish.  It tastes nicely of the sea, but it's not fishy.  It also goes well with rice, beans or pasta.  (We're having some with arros negre and chorizo tonight!)
Here, we have a preparation with pasta.  The actual dish is called Spaghetti con Calamari, but I find spaghetti boring.  There are so many other, more interesting pastas out there; why waste our time eating spaghetti?  The recipe calls for spaghetti or linguine, so we went with linguine.  In fact, Steve found linguine fini, which is like mini linguine.  It's about the size of spaghetti, but it's flat.  That makes it better.  Obviously.
Besides pasta and calamari, the main flavors were fennel, lemon, and red pepper.  Because Steve used red bell pepper rather than red chilis, the dish felt a little more Spanish than Italian.  Still good, though.  I like the punch of lemon juice on pasta, so I squeezed some on top of my share, in addition to the lemon zest that the recipe suggested.  Steve liked it as is, but I thought it was an improvement.  

We may have had different opinions about the proper amount of lemon, but we were able to agree that this was a delightful new dish.  It felt light, and the flavors were different from our usual pasta options.  After making it again last week, I got to sample some as leftovers.  It still tasted really good, but I realized just how light the dish was when I felt hungry again an hour later.  Oh well.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

the next chapter

Continuing on with the chronicle of the 52 Weeks of Food project, we reach week 4.  Again, our inspiration was a dish from February's visit to Contigo.  This time?  Grilled calamari with chorizo and beans.

Steve used some of the San Franciscano heirloom beans that we had purchased at Rancho Gordo in Napa during our anniversary trip last August.  He cooked them up with some Spanish chorizo, red pepper, onions, celery, and a splash of beer, and they turned out great.  For the grilled calamari, he used a marinade with olive oil, lemon zest, and paprika, which made it taste suitably Spanish.  Between the grilling, the chorizo, and the paprika, there was a lovely smokey flavor.  It was just what I had been craving.
A couple weeks later, we tried a different variation of the same dish.  According to their menus online, Contigo had been alternating between serving the grilled calamari with beans and serving them with arros negre.  During our next meal there in mid-March, we tried the arros negre version and decided to replicate that on a weeknight.  Steve did sort of a paella preparation with rice, squid ink, and the Spanish chorizo.  He grilled the calamari the same way as before, but he added egg yolk to his second try at the allioli sauce, which turned out better than his previous, broken attempt.  Although I have yet to take pictures of this version of the dish at home, I liked it even better than the version with beans.  (It was too close to the other calamari preparation, so we didn't count it as our new food for the week.)
Taking a break from Contigo-inspired dishes, just for one week, we tried a pasta from Michael Symon's Live to Cook for week 5.  We settled on the Sheep's Milk Ravioli with Brown Butter and Almonds.  It had been a couple of years since Steve's last attempt at making his own filled pasta, but he did much better this time.  The pasta was nowhere near as thick as I remembered it being, although Steve still could have gone thinner with it.

The sauce that went with the ravioli was interesting, but good.  It was a combination of brown butter, orange, parsley, and almonds.  With the right ratio of each in a bite with the cheese-filled pasta, it was wonderful.  Unfortunately, those perfect bites were kind of few and far between.  They were just glimpses of how good the dish could be if it was executed perfectly.  It was good enough for us to try it again, but I was thinking of different variations to use for the sauce.  As classic and tasty as the orange was, I couldn't help but pine for some lemon or even lime.
coca... kind of
By week 6, I was starting to get tired of my usual photographic set-up.  The tripod and the white background were limiting me, and I was bored with my own pictures.  We decided to make our new dish for the week as our Saturday lunch, which meant I could use natural light for once.  Our choice was also fitting for a weekend lunch: glorified pizza.
In a final Contigo-inspired move, we decided on a coca or Catalan flatbread, similar to those we had eaten at the restaurant.  Steve used his normal pizza crust recipe, though, so it probably wasn't as authentic.  For toppings, we had broccolini that Steve had purchased at the farmers market, caramelized onions that Steve had cooked down that morning, and manchego cheese that I had picked up at Bi-Rite Market when I went to see the baby goats the day before.  The resulting coca/pizza was fabulous.  We made it again the next weekend, but with a thinner crust.  Steve also caramelized the onions a little less, so they were closer in color to the ones we had had at Contigo.
The coca recipe is definitely a keeper.  We plan to make another one tonight or tomorrow night.
Next up: Easter weekend and weeks 7-9 or so.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

you gotta have a gimmick

Around the time that Steve and I returned from New York in January, I had a decision to make.  My Project 365 had ended on January 7; and the trip, which was keeping me shooting each day after that, was over too.  It was back to real life, where taking a picture each day requires actual effort.  As sad as I was to give up the fun and excitement of the project, I had to admit that I didn't really want to do another whole year of it.

After 370 days, I let one go by without taking any pictures.  By the time late afternoon/evening hit on day 371, I was feeling that familiar pressure to go find something to photograph.  But since I didn't actually want to go take pictures, I finally made the official decision to stop.  The subsequent days turned out to be a nice break from obligatory daily shooting, and as it turns out, I still took pictures for half of the remaining days in January.

I felt a little lost without an official project, though.  I settled for creating a photo set on Flickr called "2010: Year in Pictures."  I've seen other people use that label for their 365s, but I've been using it with my own, less strict rules.  Instead of taking a picture a day, I shoot as often as I want—at least once a week—and include one or two pictures from each of those days.  It's a much less comprehensive look at the year, but since I'm taking a few pictures each week, it's more inclusive than a 52-week project.  Multiple pictures per day also means that I don't have to make the difficult choice of which single photo to include in the set for a particular day.  Choosing between two shots I liked (or didn't really like) was one of the hardest parts of Project 365.

But wait, there's more...  I had so much fun taking pictures of our Valentine's dinner that I instituted a new joint project for Steve and myself.  He's always getting new cookbooks and bookmarking recipes to do online, yet the frequency of actually making new things has been relatively low.  We've gotten in a bit of a rut in recent years, making a lot of the same things all the time.  On top of that, his blog posts have been embarrassingly sparse in the last couple years—only three posts in 2009 and nothing for 2008 after an August post about our wedding.  (He claims to have many entries stuck in draft form.)  In any case, it was time to do better.

The challenge: cook something new every week(end) for a year, photograph it, and blog about it.  Steve does the cooking—often while I'm working on Saturdays or Sundays—and I take pictures of it.  Then Steve writes a blog post, which I proof for him, and he actually posts it on his blog.

As I mentioned above, it was our dinner on Valentine's Day that inspired this new project.  I had been mostly staying away from taking pictures of food at home after dark, but I always take pictures of the new dishes that Steve cooks for the occasion.  The difference this time was that I seemed to have found a workable way to do it and produce better pictures.  I used my tripod, set my camera on timer and shutter lock-up modes to allow for slower shutter speeds, and shot the plates on a white napkin on the coffee table.  For light, I used the floor lamp nearby and the overhead light in the living room.  It wasn't ideal, but it was the best I could do without real lighting equipment.
My picture of the salmon cornets was my favorite from Valentine's Day, and it was kind of the catalyst for the 52 Weeks of Food project.  I put it in the photo set on Flickr, but technically it's more of a "week 0" than week 1.

The official week 1 dish was lamb and beans from the Cafe Boulud Cookbook.  It turned out kind of "meh."  Something was screwy with the recipe, so it ended up with too much liquid.  The different types of beans were cooking unevenly too, which meant that some were still a little underdone when we finally decided to eat.
The picture turned out okay, but the meat looks a little dry.  Whatever moisture was on the surface had evaporated or soaked in by the time I got to this frame.
We fared better the second week with an asparagus and robiola risotto, inspired by a similar one we had the year before at Beretta.  Steve worked his magic, combining our memory and my picture of the original dish with some online/cookbook research and his usual risotto techniques.  It was great on the first try, and Steve ended up making it again a few days later since we had some of the robiola cheese left.  This one was definitely a keeper.  (Steve too :) )

Next came the week of the duck, this time inspired by a duck breast dish with prunes that we had at Contigo for Steve's birthday.  First, Steve tried a recipe for duck legs with prunes from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.  It was okay, but not quite what I had in mind.  I wasn't a fan of the texture of the fresh prunes, and the bed of arugula (our idea) went pretty limp with the hot duck on top.
Later in the week, Steve made duck breast from One Spice, Two Spice and served it with a version of Gitane's bacon bonbons: prunes stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in bacon, with a port reduction.  The duck breast was way too salty, because of a lot of implied salting in the recipe.  With the right amount of salt, it would have been pretty good.  I really liked the stuffed prunes, though.
And that's a long enough post for now.  Weeks 4-6 coming soon.