Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sausage & Goat Cheese Lasagna / Beethoven String Quartet

Lasagna has been one of my favorite dishes since I was little. Every now and then, my Italian mother would indulge us by making her famous version - usually to celebrate a birthday, a satisfactory report card, or the occasional (but very appreciated) "just because." This particular recipe remains a favorite in our house. Adding goat cheese to the traditionally mild ricotta mixture brings the lasagna to a whole new level of cheesy perfection.

{The precise moment my husband announced that "something smells amazing." Needless to say, meat was involved}

The recipe is such a slam dunk as is that I barely make any modifications to it. I usually add crushed fennel seeds and red pepper flakes to the onion, garlic, and sausage mixture before finishing up the sauce.

{Simmering away}

Like many musical masterpieces, lasagna comes together by way of a divinely simple layering process. Though each layer - sauce, pasta, mozzarella, ricotta - is distinct on its own, they all come together to create one deliciously harmonious whole.

{1. Sauce}

{2. Pasta and 3. Mozzarella}

{4. Ricotta/goat cheese}

{Repeat layers 1. through 4... and top it all off with some extra parmesan cheese}

So for a relevant musical pairing: here's a bit of one of my favorite Beethoven string quartets. Like this lasagna, it begins with one layer and adds in the remaining three one by one - resulting in something perfectly satisfying and utterly complete. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Salted Pistachio Dark Chocolate Macarons / Ravel Piano Concerto

Last week, I received an incredibly sweet birthday present from a good friend and colleague at Pacific Symphony: a cookbook entitled "Mad About Macarons." On opening the gift, I was touched that my friend had thoughtfully indulged my obsession with decadent baking. But the more I learned about macarons - and even about the author of the cookbook, who is a musician herself - the more special the gift became.
{at various stages of preparation}

Having never made macarons before, I was unaware of just how much time they require to achieve the most perfect results. First, the egg whites age in the fridge for 4 to 5 days before being beaten. Once the shell batter has been prepared and carefully piped onto baking sheets, it rests on the counter to set for about an hour before baking. Finally, the fully baked and assembled macarons themselves taste best after spending at least 24 hours in the fridge.

But the end result was well worth the wait(s). Despite my wondering if I was doing everything right (because there is just so much that can go wrong: cracked/bubbly/hollow shells, the dreaded lack of "feet"...), it all worked out in the end - thanks to graceful aging. What a fitting birthday metaphor... especially reassuring since this year's my 30th.

{cooling off below the book that made the process relatively foolproof}

I made very few changes to the recipe outlined in the book. My most substantial addition was a sprinkling of Maldon salt to enhance the flavors of both the ground pistachios and the dark chocolate. And for color, I added a few grams of cocoa powder to the shell batter.

{Sadly, no chocolate for Poochini!}

Musical pairing: the first movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major. It is a joyful explosion of flavors and colors; sophisticated, but with a palatable sense of whimsy and fun; and exquisitely French in a very modern way. Enjoy!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Frozen Key Lime Pie / Gershwin Prelude

After taking a much-needed vacation to South America, I returned to the northern hemisphere desperate to enjoy summertime in a proper summer climate. And did I ever get it: Los Angeles was so oppressively hot that I found myself craving things that were light, refreshing, and (above all else) COLD. This frozen key lime pie fit the bill perfectly.

I've made it twice since we returned, with a few modifications the second time around. Since the first pie I made suffered from a tragically skimpy proportion of crust to filling, I added 50% more crust. I also mixed half a teaspoon of vanilla extract into the melted butter before adding it to the graham cracker crumbs - to which I added a 1/4 teaspoon of salt. (Because any self-respecting margarita lover worth her, well, salt knows that limes demand as much.)

{my kind of golden ratio}

Being a doctor's daughter, the consumption of raw egg doesn't sit all that well with me. (Salmonella: not the greatest secret ingredient.) So once I'd creamed the eggs and sugar, I put them over a double boiler with a half a cup of the lime juice, whisking constantly, until my handy little infrared thermometer let me know that the mixture had reached 140 degrees. After letting it cool, I added in the sweetened condensed milk and remaining lime juice/zest.

{fit for consumption}

And so as not to let 6 egg whites go to waste, I used 2 of them to make these.  (I threw the remaining four in the fridge to age for a few days in preparation for the macaroons' similarly named brother-from-another-mother, the macaron.)

Musical pairing: Gershwin's Prelude #2, arranged by the legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz. It's always reminded me of hot, humid, languid summer days. It's utterly American, and has a refreshingly simple yet rich sweetness to it. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Grilled Corn Salad / Naive and Sentimental Music

Despite living a few hours' drive from Sin City for most of my life, I'd never been much of a Vegas person. Between the crowds and the heat (not to mention my being too risk-averse to be much of a gambler), I'd largely failed to see its appeal. That all changed over the weekend, when my husband and I visited a good friend who is performing in Celine Dion's show at Caesar's Palace. A definite highlight was the dinner we enjoyed on Saturday night at Mesa Grill, Bobby Flay's restaurant across the way from Celine's show. Everyone's favorite dish was this grilled corn salad. I couldn't wait to recreate it at home.

Though packed with flavor, this recipe resulted in something quite a bit lighter than the Mesa Grill original. But I'll take what I can get here. For one thing, who could possibly expect the host of "Throw Down with Bobby Flay" to reveal all of his trade secrets? Plus, this version is surely more dietetic. It contained a fraction of the creamy, cheesy goo that made the Mesa version so ridiculously filling. (And that was after I doubled the quantity of cojita cheese and creme fraiche indicated.) I suppose it's true that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas - kitchens included.

Musical pairing: John Adams' Naive and Sentimental Music. The second movement, "Mother of the Man," has always reminded me of clouds drifting slowly over the desert landscape. I thought of it often while making the drive from LA to Vegas.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rose Panna Cotta with Raspberry and Lychee / Mother Goose Suite

Being married to a chocoholic can be surprisingly hard on a recreational chef with as indiscriminating a sweet tooth as myself.  If only I could turn my husband away from the chocolatey-dark side; far enough, at least, that he would actually enjoy a slice of lemon meringue pie! I would die a happy woman, confident that the dessert-making force was with me. To be fair, though, he's come a very far way already - thanks to ridiculously exquisite (and foolproof) recipes like this one.

{cream + sugar + mascarpone + rosewater + cute ramekin = panna cotta}

Martha Stewart's light and delicately floral Rosewater Panna Cotta seemed just right for a dinner party in the garden earlier this week. The original recipe calls for fresh raspberries and chopped canned lychees, with the accompanying clear syrup reserved as a sauce. But when I spotted fresh lychees at Trader Joe's, I imagined a simple coulis made out of fresh lychees and raspberries instead.

{Coulis is just Fancy for "fruit sauce"}
After pureeing a pint of raspberries with 10 peeled, pitted lychees and 2 tablespoons of powdered  sugar, I pushed the liquid through a sieve to remove seeds. The resulting sauce was heavenly: sweet, floral, and ever so slightly tart. (If you don't have access to fresh lychees, canned would work just as well; just skip the sugar.)
I served the panna cotta with this ginger shortbread.

Lastly, a word to the wise: don't be in a hurry to remove the panna cotta from its container. I may or may not have shattered a plate in my haste to shake a particularly stubborn one free. Loosen the bottoms first by placing them in a baking dish filled with half an inch of very hot water for several minutes.

{chocolate who?}

Musical pairing: "Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas" from Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. It's silken, snowy, and boasts an elegantly eastern flavor - not entirely unlike this dessert. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Olive & Thyme Baguettes / Rossini Overture

 Everyone has their culinary white whale. Until last fall, mine was bread. After an attempt at making rosemary rolls several years ago yielded what can best described as herbed hockey pucks, I'd avoided bread making at all costs. Being at the mercy of yeast - those tiny, fickle living organisms with minds of their own - made the bread making process seem far too unpredictable for my liking.

{Olive & thyme baguette with prosciutto, heirloom tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella}
{Baguettes fresh out of the oven}
Although we received a bread machine as a wedding gift five years ago, it sat around collecting dust for four of them. Last summer, I finally got around to using it. A few satisfactory, machine-assisted loaves later, I'd gained the confidence to try my hand at making bread on my own.

Over the weekend, we had my family over for sandwiches made with freshly baked kalamata olive & thyme baguettes (recipe here). The loaves were loaded with flavor, with a perfectly golden crust.

Because this recipe yields two large baguettes, I chose to fill one with grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, herbed goat cheese, and basil, and the other with prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, heirloom tomato, basil, and olive oil/balsamic vinegar.

{even my vegephobe brother proclaimed that "eggplant is good." Success!}

Musical pairing: Rossini's Overture to "La Gazza Ladra." It captures the gleeful victory I felt upon tasting these robust, perfect, hearty loaves. Plus, it's Italian - and boasts that special sprezzatura to which all musicians/chefs/artists aspire; that "easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them." This version is performed by Gustavo Dudamel, LA's new golden boy, and his remarkable youth orchestra in Venezuela. Enjoy!