Monday, February 15, 2010


One intersection of my lifehacking and cooking efforts happens with my decision to follow through on things I've long said I will do. In the case of this weekend's Valentine's celebration with L and several friends, this included finally making bouillabaisse. It is something I've said I would do for several years, but every time I almost did it, I backed off. Not this time.

I did my usual recipe digging and found that bouillabaisse, like paella, is one of those dishes that has few rules other than the the base ingredients. In my research, though, I kept coming back to a version of Julia Child's original recipe. It is a simple matter of building the stock and then letting the rest of the ingredients come together as needed and based on what you have available to you. And then, of course, there's the rouille.

Once I'd settled on the recipe, the next step was plotting out the ingredients. Bouillabaisse can be a pricey affair — unless you happen to be family of someone who harvests shellfish and catches fresh fish. Since the numbers from dinner could have ranged from 6 to 12, I had to shoot a little high on the ingredients. Since I also had to aim for convenience and time-efficiency, the source would be Whole Foods. I started with a half pound of mussels, a dozen littleneck clams, a dozen extra large shrimp with the shells on, and two-thirds of a pound of scallops. By and large, the shellfish were in beautiful shape, though I did end up pitching about a quarter of the mussels. For the fish, I opted for tilapia and cod, almost two pounds total. They had the right consistency and flavor and were beautiful cuts without being as expensive as other options.

I made a few other substitutions along the way. For the sake of time and since truly beautiful tomatoes are hard to come by right now, I opted for a large can of diced tomatoes. I also skipped the step when fish skeletons are stewed and used a mix of my own fish stock, a quart of Whole Foods' fish stock, and a quart of water to cut the intensity. The other tweaks I made to the base recipe included a healthy splash of Cointreau and about a quarter cup of Sauvignon Blanc. I also decided to rest the broth off heat between the initial near-boil and bringing it back to heat and adding the seafood a couple hours later.

Bouillabaisse was a muse a while back, but not something I'd ever cooked. As such, I didn't know about rouille — the little side sauce that creates a bit of magic when dolloped in bowls and slathered on fresh, crusty bread. Most recipes use water- and lemon- soaked bread as the base for the paste, but Julia's recipe had a variation using almonds. Since we'd be heavy on the bread anyway, I decided to try the almonds as an alternative. By the time I was working on the rouille, I also had word that the crowd would be 12, and I decided to double the recipe. I roasted two peppers using Alice Waters' oven-roasting technique, added my own dried chili from last summer's market. The puree quickly turned a bright orange — aided by a touch of saffron — and I began adding the olive oil per the recipe. At a taste, the flavors were rich and explosive, but L thought it tasted a bit heavy on the olive oil. It was a perfect opportunity for a little kitchen training for the kid, a chance to explain that you countered the fatty flavor of the oil by adding more lemon, more salt, and a bit more of the chili to sharpen the flavor. Another couple minutes running in the food processor, and the rouille was ready to put aside.

After a quick interlude for Valentine's Day celebrations and a glass of Linden Vineyards excellent 2005 Claret (another story for another time), we migrated the food next door for the actual dinner party. The celebration was kicking in, and it would be another hour or so before I'd go through the final steps. At that point, ti became a game of time — adding the shrimp, then the clams and mussels, then the scallops and finally the fish sliced into inch-wide strips at intervals so the soup could be pulled off the fire and served minutes after the last fish was added. Timing hasn't always been my strong suit, but it worked this time.

At final listing, the menu stacked up as follows: cheese fondue with vegetables and bread, a pear/walnut/gorgonzola salad, the bouillabaisse with bread baked fresh by our host, a champagne rose petal sorbet also made by the host, chocolate fondue, and home-made eclairs. The wine flowed, the kids had their own celebration, and it was declared one of the best (and most decadent) food celebrations any of us could remember.

There's something magical to sharing a meal with people. When done well and in the right company, all sorts of boundaries can drop and time stops for a brief, wonderful period. When you step away with full stomachs and the touch of sweet and bite of savory still lingering on your lips, a light just seems to shine on the rest of life.

Monday, February 08, 2010


I've decided to begin running with new ideas and new recipes for the coming year. I want to learn how to do things like make corned beef. I want to challenge the boundaries of dishes and preparations that I already know. I want to pick out an old food magazine every week and find things to make out of it. I want to — as I outlined a couple posts ago — take a second look at the ingredients in my cupboards or in the market and rethink how we're eating.

Last week, I took a shot at this when L and I were debating what to make for dinner — without wanting to eat out again or do another big grocery run. She had an acorn squash, and I had the muse of making a winter squash bisque. With the quick direction to pick up some sherry and another squash at the store, and a plan to get bread at our local French joint — Can Can — I did a bit of research and came up with a nice recipe to tweak.

Instead of the called-for olive oil, I opted for butter, and on the sauté, I added a healthy dose of smoked Spanish paprika. Beyond that, I followed the recipe to the letter. The result was a hearty, smoky cold-weather meal of soup, bread and salad. Since L is not a fan of all-things-smoked, however, I decided we needed another go at the soup this weekend.

The second round I upped the stock a bit and added more tomatoes, since L would be serving it at her book club. This meant all the spices needed a boost, as did the sherry. In the end, I switched up the smoked paprika for sweet Hungarian paprika, and the result was a very different (and much better) bisque. With a dose of ground chili and thyme at the end, the soup struck the perfect note. With any luck, the women in L's book club will agree.

Regardless, I'll be making this one again for sure. What I love about the soup — besides the taste, of course — is that it is so simple. The recipe only involves a few ingredients and some fairly simple preparations to achieve a result that seems (and tastes) far more complex. The next step will be to jump past the kid's pickiness and get her to try it too. Wish me luck on that one...

Thursday, February 04, 2010

snow dreams of food

Richmond is seeing its snowiest winter in recent memory this year. It's almost as though all the jokes about runs on the local grocery stores for milk, eggs, and bread when the word "snow" hits the forecast have finally brought karmic retribution back on us in the form of two good-sized storms. Each has dumped nearly a foot of snow on the area and paralyzed businesses and shut schools. The kids have had a hell of a time, and parents are running out of ways to amuse them. After all, there's only so much you can do when you live in the heart of the city to send your kids out to pasture.

There have been some collateral benefits, however. They include slowing down by necessity and re-acquainting ourselves with the house, and remembering to cook more and use more of the food that stuffs the fridge. Recent adventures have included remembering how to make crépes, gingerbread and biscotti (thanks to L), fondue, chili, and more.

Last night's adventure was more of a culinary break than I've made lately. Facing down dwindling supplies of various staples and specialty items, I knew we had a few hurdles to cross. L is a pescatarian, which means I have to temper my meat-loving tendencies for some meals or find a general balance in others. The Kid has lately gotten even pickier about what she'll eat — a foodie kid losing her omnivorousness is another post for another time. Lastly, I realized feeding us all at the same time wasn't going to work. Solution time...

The kid got pesto pasta. It's not the most creative solution, but some penne with TJ's pesto on it is a sure-fire silver bullet when she's hungry and tired. Add a bit of feta and a few grape tomatoes, and the meal is complete and easy to put together while she hangs out with us.

For L and I, I concocted a wholly different idea. I had lentils that had been around a while, a small stash of grape tomatoes, an onion, garlic, and a well-stocked spice cabinet. A quick check of Saveur brought up an Ethiopian lentil stew. That combined with some savory whole-wheat crépes started to sound a whole lot like an improvised Ethiopian dinner. The lentils took about an hour to cook and come together. It was the right amount of time for mixing up a quick crépe batter and running the crepes. I pulled one of the small zucchinis in the fridge and sliced it into quarter-inch-thick half-moons. These I tossed with a bit of olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper, and put on a baking pan to roast while L was working on biscotti, round 2.

When the crépes were ready, I laid out one on each plate as one might find a bed of injera in an Ethiopian restaurant and then added two more, folded to quarters, to section off the plate. On one side went the zucchini, and on the other a pile of lentils topped with a small dollop of plain yogurt. On a shared plate, I put out The lentils weren't as spicy as I'd hoped, so I'll be looking for some real berbere powder for the next attempt. Nonetheless, the flavors came together wonderfully and both L and I finished the meal with nearly clean plates.

I recommend stepping back and looking back at your cupboards once in a while and thinking about new ways you can use the same old ingredients.