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Our friend Tony Chong contributes this article. Tony mans a mean barbecue and makes a curry so hot, grown men weep and his wife flees the kitchen–and his famous cucumber salad is delicious with both options.   

I was never much of a cucumber fan growing up, so it is rather ironic that a salad based on cucumbers should become one of the most well-received and requested dishes I’ve ever made. But what’s not to like? The combination of tang and sweet with a touch of savory, mixed with the zesty crunch of the cucumbers, makes it a wonderfully light and refreshing counterpoint to just about any main course you can imagine.

 

Interestingly enough, a cucumber salad was not what I intended to make when I started out. I was originally trying to create a good tomato, red onion and cucumber salad, emphasis on the tomatoes and onions. While the various results were satisfactory, they never quite hit the full mark. The onions proved too strong for some people and the tomatoes tended to disappoint both in flavor and in texture. It quickly became clear that the one element that held up throughout all the variations were the cucumbers.  So why not just do a good-parts version?

 

Inspiration was drawn from the marinated cucumbers adorning the house salad at Clancy’s Crab Broiler seafood restaurant inGlendale,CA. Of all the cucumbers I had tasted, those were the best. With that in mind, the quest was on to find the perfect combination of supplements for the featured ingredient. It took several tries, but the final results proved not only delicious, but allowed the cucumber to become the central feature of the dish, not a mere ornament to a standard lettuce-based salad.

 

While regular cucumbers will work, the salad is best made with extra-crispy Persians, which are the long, skinny, thin-skinned variant that show up in some local farmers markets.  Happily Trader Joe’s carries them as well. The wrapped English hot-house cucumbers will work fine, too, but it is really the Persians you want.

 

With that said, the ingredients are:

 

  • 4 cloves garlic, minced fine
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped fine
  • 12 small cucumbers, peeled and sliced thin
  • 10-12 oz of seasoned rice vinegar (although garlic or plain will work fine) – enough to cover
  • A dash or two or Lawry’s Savor Salt
  • ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
  • Sugar to taste (more than you would think, but just this side of pucker)

 

Mix garlic, celery and cucumbers in a large serving bowl. Add Savor Salt, vinegar and oregano and stir. Add sugar slowly and taste; stop when you no longer pucker up! There should be just enough vinegar to cover cucumbers when they are pressed down (will create additional fluid as they marinate).  Let stand in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours. Serve chilled. Salad will last up to a week in the refrigerator in a sealed container.

 

And there you go; a little taste of spring that can be had year-round – at least in places that carry all the ingredients.  By the way, they also make great cucumber tea sandwiches!

 

For this and other fun recipes, including some by regular host Laurie Perry, buy the Invenature Eats cookbook at: http://www.lulu.com/shop/tina-chong-and-and-friends/invenature-eats/paperback/product-6538060.html  Available in both spiral-bound and electronic versions.

–Tony Chong

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I make lasagna for parties and potlucks; I often make it for the first night of our annual girlfriends four-day Cambria road trip, but I’m fairly sure my honey has never had it for a dinner with just the two of us. Mostly because, in true Perry fashion, I only know how to make a batch for 10 or more guests. I’m sure you can make smaller amounts, but why? The leftovers are even better for lunch or dinner the next day and the rest freezes perfectly for that night you are just too exhausted to prepare dinner. So here you go – dinner for 10 – just add salad and garlic bread.

Good friends, a bottle of red & Red & White Lasagna


This lasagna uses both a red sauce and a faux bechamel/white sauce–it’s not a true bechamel because I don’t adorn an onion with whole cloves and steep it in hot milk for an hour. (That makes for a delicious sauce, yes, but I have a day job. And a life.)

Easy Red Sauce

1/2 small onion, chopped
1-2 tbls olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 lg cans Italian stewed tomatoes (try to find Italian, they’re better!)
1/2 cup red wine (good wine, follow my mantra – if you can’t drink it, don’t cook with it)
1 small can tomato paste
2 tsp Trader Joe’s 21-Seasoning Salute*
2 tsp Trader Joe’s Pasta Seasoning Blend
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet; warm the olive oil (you want medium heat–olive oil burns if your heat is too high), then add onions and sauté until tender (about 3 minutes). Pour in the tomatoes and smash them until they’re in smaller chunks. Add tomato paste, spices and red wine. Simmer with a screen cover (so it doesn’t splatter all over your stove) for about half an hour. Salt and pepper to taste.

Easy White Sauce

1/4 cup butter (half a stick)
1/3 cup flour
1 qt half and half
1 tbls Knorr Caldo de Pollo powder
1/4 cup white wine
1 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg (or to taste; sometimes I use more)

Melt butter in large saucepan until bubbly. Add flour and stir in; the flour should be absorbed. Stir for about 3 minutes; don’t allow to turn brown! Add wine and then the milk until the mixture is thick and starts to bubble (it might not take the full quart). Then add in the pollo de caldo powder. Last, turn off heat and stir in nutmeg.

Hazel’s Red-and-White Lasagna

Ingredients:
Red and white sauces (purchased red is ok if you have a favorite, although I prefer my own)
1 package of Trader Joe’s Quattro Formagio cheese mix
1 8-ounce package of sliced white mushrooms
1 small onion, halved and thin sliced
1 package TJ’s Italian sausage (Chicken)
Olive oil
1 package no-boil lasagna noodles
1 tub Ricotta

Bring a large sauté pan to heat and splash in a couple tablespoons olive oil. Squeeze the chicken sausage from its casings and crumble into the pan. Sauté til cooked through, crumbling into big chunks. Remove from pan and add the sliced onions and mushrooms. Sauté til golden, then remove from heat.

In a large deep lasagna baking pan splash the bottom with olive oil, and smear over the bottom and sides of pan. Ladle in approx 1 cup of your red sauce and add the first layer of dry, uncooked lasagna noodles. Add another cup of red sauce to the top and spread roughly with flat wooden spoon. Sprinkle half your sausage over that layer. Add half the mascarpone by teaspoonfuls across this layer and then add about a cup of the cheese mix. Add another layer of noodles, this time covering with a cup of the béchamel sauce. Sprinkle this layer with half the onion-mushroom mix and the balance of the mascarpone and another cup of cheese mix. For the next layer, red sauce and the balance of the sausage and another cup of the cheese mix. For the final layer, cover with noodles, the last of your béchamel sauce and mushroom/oinion mix and the last of the cheese mix. Bake for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Enjoy!

Hazel

*Another WordPress blogger who is equally devoted to Trader Joe’s seasoning blends notes that Costco carries a similar product–in, of course, a much larger package. Check out Carrol’s comments in What I Crave here. I too run out of 21-Seasoning Salute all too often, so this is info I can use!

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The holidays may be over, but, as singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen observed some years ago, the party never ends. And you always need appetizers. Guests drop in, and it’s nice to have something special to serve with a glass of wine. I’m partial to palmiers, especially because I can make them when I have a free half-hour and stick them in the freezer. They’ll keep for a month, well wrapped.

I almost always have a package of puff pastry dough in my freezer (it’s a thin box and only sucks up a very small portion of that precious freezer real estate)

Choose Your Own Filling Palmiers
Roll out one square of the two in the package. If you wet your work surface with a damp sponge and cover with plastic wrap, this job is achieved with very little mess.

Rolling toward the center

I always layer my dough between two pieces of plastic wrap and roll it out so it becomes about two inches longer than it was when I started. Try to roll so the dough becomes more rectangular in shape.

Take off the top piece of plastic wrap and brush the entire flat piece of pastry with olive oil. Now here’s the fun part. Sprinkle with finely grated parmesan cheese and – you choose! I’ve used caramelized onions, olive tapenade, crumbled bacon, my honey’s smoked tomatoes minced fine, minced garlic – the variations are as big as your imagination. The only caveat: use only a couple ingredients.

Now, starting at the left edge, start to roll your pastry toward the center. Use your plastic wrap to help in this process. Once you have reached just to the center, do the same on the right side of your pastry. Your pastry should look like two small rolls lying next to each other, and they will be about an inch tall. Wrap it with the same plastic wrap that you just used for your counter covering. Put in the refrigerator for an hour and then stash in the freezer somewhere where it will be able to keep its shape. If it’s cold from the refrigerator, it won’t form ice crystals after it hits your freezer.

When you’re ready, pull the dough out and let thaw for only 10 minutes (make sure to keep it firm) and then slice to about 1/3 inch thick pieces. Lay the slices flat on an ungreased baking sheet about a half-inch apart. If you have time, you can let them rise for about half an hour at room temp. Pop them in a 400 degree oven till golden brown and serve hot. They’re crisp, delicious and easy!

Hazel

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making ice cream with a Cuisinart ice cream maker

Buttermilk gives this ice cream tang and reduces the fat content--a little. After all, ice cream is supposed to be delicious, not health food.

I’ve been promising myself all summer that I’d make ice cream. I even remembered to put the Cuisinart canister in the freezer…months ago. But somehow, one thing or another prevented me from spending a happy day creating a decadent, or even semi-decadent, treat. Finally, on the first day of autumn, I got around to it. Now, I know some people have fall weather by the end of September, but it hit 95 in the San Fernando Valley, so ice cream was definitely appropriate.

Some years ago I made an ice cream with sour cream that had a lovely tanginess, and I wanted to re-create that flavor with, ideally, a little less butterfat. Low-fat buttermilk sounded like a good substitute. No one could call this a low-fat dessert, but I guess you could describe it as a reduced-fat ice cream. After all, it’s only got two cups of heavy cream, not three. The brown sugar adds to the rich flavor, I think. And I think it would be pretty damned good on a late-season-peach cobbler for my next dinner party.

Buttermilk Brown Sugar Ice Cream

2 cups of heavy cream
2/3 cup brown sugar
4 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla
pinch of salt
1 cup buttermilk

Bring the cream to a low simmer in a saucepan. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and brown sugar with the pinch of salt. Pour a little of the hot cream into the egg mixture to temper it, then slowly pour the remaining cream in, whisking until smooth.

Mel gave me this for my birthday a few years ago. It was not entirely a self-serving gift--but nobody loves ice cream more than Mel does.

Return the mixture to the saucepan and reheat gently, stirring continuously. Do not let it come to a boil. When the custard base has thickened somewhat, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla and the buttermilk. Chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, then process according to your ice cream maker’s directions.

Laurie

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Our nephew Sam is a professional chef who trained at the New England Culinary Institute and has worked at fine restaurants around the country, including McCrady’s in Charleston and Wilshire in Los Angeles. Some months ago he hinted broadly that he would like to contribute to this blog. We immediately took him up on that hint. And then we waited…and waited. For the family Fourth of July potluck, he brought a delicious potato salad, and before I let him touch the black bottom cups, I made him promise to send us the recipe.

Guess what? He came through–and here he demonstrates that professional chefs use shortcuts and mixes, just like mere home cooks.

Sam’s Super Ranch Potato Salad
5 pounds red bliss potatoes cut into 1/4-inch rounds
8 hardboiled eggs, sliced
1 red onion, small dice
2 stalks celery, small dice
1 bunch green onions, cut fine, including white parts
2 bunches parsley, fine chiffonade
1 pound bacon, diced small and rendered
2 packets Hidden Valley ranch dressing mix, buttermilk variety*
2 cups mayonnaise
2 cups buttermilk
red wine vinegar to taste
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the potatoes in a large pot of very well salted water; this is your only chance to pump those bland potatoes full of flavor, so make sure you do it.

When the potatoes are a little past fork tender (break one up and taste it to make sure the texture is where you want it), drain the water and spread the potatoes on a sheet pan. Place in the fridge to chill. If you mix the salad while the potatoes are still warm, you’ll end up with mashed potato salad. Gross.

In the meantime, place the eggs in cold water in a saucepan and bring it up to a boil, then turn off the heat and cover the pot with a lid and let the eggs sit for 11 minutes. Cool the eggs enough that you don’t burn your fingers, then peel them. If you peel a hard-cooked egg while it’s still warm, the membrane hasn’t yet had a chance to reattach to the egg, so it will peel very easily. Slice the eggs.

Mix the ranch dressing per the package instructions. (Please note, I’ve worked for some of the best chefs in the country–guys who are James Beard Award winners, on the Food Network, etc.–and they have had “ranch” dressing on their menus. None of which was anywhere near as good as making your own from the Hidden Valley package. I wish it weren’t true, but it is. Whatever you do, DO NOT USE THE BOTTLED dressing–I’ll find you and take it away!)

Gently toss your ingredients together

When the potatoes are cool, gently, very gently, fold in all the ingredients. Take care doing this. There are a lot of different textures going on that you’ve worked hard to create, so don’t go messing it up by mixing too quickly. Season with salt and black pepper–yes, you’ll need more salt–and red wine vinegar to taste. You’ll need that acid to cut through the rich flavors of the salad and to not bog down your taste buds. Enjoy.

Sam Perry

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Maakouda, a North African potato cake, makes an unusual and delicious side dish for a Middle-Eastern themed party meal.

A couple of weeks ago Hazel and I had lunch at a Moroccan restaurant called Oasis in San Luis Obispo. We loved everything we tasted, and since we ordered a bunch of appetizers in order to sample as much as possible, we tasted a lot. I particularly liked the maakouda, which the owner said he had learned to make from his mother.

His version was unlike others I’ve seen: made colorful with chunks of mashed carrots and sheathed in a crispy chickpea-flour crust and served with a spicy tomato sauce. I came home determined to replicate it as much as possible, and the pink soup birthday party gave me the perfect opportunity. All of our guests are adventurous eaters, so I knew no one would poke at the maakouda suspiciously and push the plate away.

Maakouda
(Moroccan Potato Patties)

2 pounds potatoes
1 medium onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 or 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 ½ tablespoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon harissa powder or a couple dashes of hot pepper sauce, to taste*
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
¼ cup chopped cilantro
3 eggs, divided

Chickpea flour
Olive oil

I use Red Bliss potatoes because I hate to peel spuds (I spent my childhood peeling potatoes for a family of zillions. Okay, 12—but when you’re peeling potatoes, it’s zillions). Boil the whole potatoes in salted water until soft. Drain and mash then—you can remove some of the skin if you like (I usually do). While the potatoes are cooking, sauté the onions until they’re translucent and then add the garlic; sauté for another minute. Gently toss the spices, potatoes, onions and garlic and cilantro together. Taste and adjust seasoning. At this point you can refrigerate it until you are ready to fry the patties; I like to let the flavors meld.

When you’re ready to proceed, mix in two of the three eggs to help the potatoes stick together. Lightly beat the third egg with a little water or milk and pour into a shallow pan or a plate. Put a cup or two of chickpea flour on a second plate.

Heat the oil until it shimmers. Shape the potatoes into patties and dip each one in the egg mixture, then in the flour. Fry until crisp, turning once. Place the patties on a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan in a warm oven until all the patties are done.

I serve them with lebneh (kefir cheese) and a Moroccan-spiced tomato sauce, but they’re great right out of the frying pan.

*Harissa powder is available from various online sources. Mine comes from 54 Gourmet Spice Blends; no website, phone 818-546-1223.

Laurie

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Party favors: When I provide them, I want them to be fun, unusual and–preferably–edible. Jordan almonds are…fine. Personalized M&Ms, potentially quite entertaining. Homemade truffles packaged to match the color scheme and theme of the party? Now we’re talking!

For the Queen of Hearts party, we began with these adorable little boxes from the Hortense B. Hewitt Co.. We were impressed by how well they were made. They fold into shape easily and squarely and they’re incredibly cute.

Party favors: Some assembly required!

Each box comes with a precut length of ribbon with a little hole in the lid to feed the ribbon through. And–somebody was thinking!–the tip of the ribbon is lightly and invisibly reinforced so it doesn’t unravel when you feed it through the little hole. The result: packages that don’t lose their ribbons.

Because this party has an Alice in Wonderland theme, we created little tags for each box that say “Eat Me.”

I’ve tried a number of truffle recipes over the years. You know what? They’re all good. And they are all easy. Easy! Good bittersweet chocolate, good cocoa and cream. That’s all it takes. You don’t need a candy thermometer; you don’t need to worry about tempering your chocolate or any of those daunting other candy-making techniques.

Here’s the recipe I used this time around. So far, it’s my favorite. It came from Gourmet magazine, about three years ago.

11 ounces bittersweet chocolate (56% cacao), divided
2/3 cup heavy cream
cocoa powder for dusting
Any additional flavorings that catch your fancy

Finely chop eight ounces of the chocolate and put in a bowl.
Bring heavy cream to a boil in a small heavy saucepan. Pour the cream over the chocolate, mashing any big pieces with a wooden spoon. Then carefully stir until the ganache is smooth.
Let stand at room temperature until thick enough to hold a shape, about one hour. Drop teaspoonsful on parchment-lined baking sheets, rounding them a little if you like them tidy like that. I personally don’t care–I think the irregular shape looks more truffle-like. If you’re in a hurry, freeze them until firm, about 15 minutes, or refrigerate them for an hour or two while you take care of other chores.

Melt the other three ounces of chocolate and smear some on your hand. Gently rub each chilled truffle to coat lightly with chocolate. The secret to a delicate coating of chocolate is to roll each truffle in a smear of melted chocolate in your hand. (The original directions suggest wearing a surgical glove, and I can see that it would make it easier and tidier to do it that way. On the other hand, I enjoyed licking my fingers when I was done.)

I can pretty much guarantee that nibbling either side of these "mushrooms" will make you larger. Happier, too!

Toss the truffles in unsweetened cocoa powder so they look like their namesakes, freshly dug from the earth. Shake the truffles in a sieve to eliminate excess cacao. Store them in the refrigerator.

I made two batches, for a total of about 50 truffles. I added grated orange zest to one bowl of cocoa and a teaspoon or so of espresso powder to another bowl of cocoa, and tossed half of the truffles in one bowl or the other. It gave them just a hint of additional flavor.

Hazel’s Saturday morning expedition to the Los Angeles flower mart yielded black-and-white polka dot candy papers for the truffles. I stacked two truffles in each little favor box, separated by a flattened polka dot paper. (I realized as I was tidying up after the party that some guests didn’t know there were two truffles in those boxes; a few people ate the top truffle and didn’t discover the one underneath. Hah! More for me!)

Laurie

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