Monday, January 26, 2009

Dueling Divas

Gotta love the expressions on these two women, sopranos from Florida with a taste for comedy, who spell "duelling" with two "l"s - because, as it is rumored, each diva insisted on having her own "L".

I'm no singer, I'm certainly no diva and what I proposed to teach this quarter at PCC is certainly not a duel, one "l" or two, but no matter, "Dueling Divas" is a catchy sort of name (thanks to PCC Cooks staff extraordinaire Jackie DeCicco for coming up with it and for her in-store slogan: Two chefs, same ingredients, two menus - what a blast!) and it worked for me and for my co-diva, all-around awesome, Chef Lynne Vea.

I teach a few classes every quarter for PCC Cooks, a cooking school that I often describe as the single best place to take or teach a cooking class in the greater Seattle area. For the "takers" you get a 2 1/2 hour class that includes: recipes, entertainment and food, plus a $10 coupon all for $35-40. For the "teachers" you get to teach in one of the neatest, most organized teaching kitchens (with new high tech cameras and monitors) I've ever had the pleasure of working out of, two friendly, uber-helpful assistants happy to do your dishes (if only they would follow me home), a staff discount card, all your ingredients at your fingertips (no such thing as, "oh crap, I forgot to bring roasted red chile paste, emmer farro and dwarf pygmy goat milk and class starts in 30 minutes!")

PCC Cooks has stuck with me over the years as I've proposed numerous classes, some stunning successes (see Vibrant Vietnamese, Absolutely Fabulous Appetizers) and some dismal failures (see Meet the Producer, a class that had all the ingredients for success: a menu designed around a local producer's awesome foods with a q and a with the farmer, rancher, etc... However, for whatever complex set of reasons, we built it and not so many came. When we did have a full class one day, the producer decided - 2 hours before class started - that they wouldn't be able to make it, seriously flapping my unflappable exterior.)

What if, I proposed, we did a kinder, gentler form of an Iron Chef - a class where two chefs take the same list of seasonal, local ingredients (not just one star ingredient) and show (LIVE! and UNCENSORED!) the different directions that the food can go, while we work around each other in a teaching kitchen designed for one. The students will enter kitchen stadium (aka PCC Issaquah, Edmonds, Greenlake and Redmond) not knowing what on earth we will make with the ingredients. They will leave with our recipes. There will be no competition, per se (see 'kinder, gentler') but lots of friendly banter and conviviality.

My friend Traca asked me how chefs keep learning new things. What do we do when we need injections of inspiration, exposure to new ingredients or new techniques? I suppose the answer is different for everyone, but for me, I approach this from many angles: I read everything I can get my hands on; I make goals (this year I will buy a small storage refrigerator because I will work my way through the book Charcuterie and finally make some cured meats); I travel - or I did, in flusher times, and I eat everything even if it means I'm sicker than a dog, stuck on a remote island in Thailand with questionable toilet access; I never let myself get cocky because I know my education will stop the minute that happens; I surround myself with people I respect and people I can learn from; and finally, I teach because all teachers must learn in order to teach well and all good teachers know that they can and should learn from their students.

I've watched Lynne Vea's career from the sidelines for quite a while. She even graciously let me audit her class once so I could see if she would be a good match for my idea. She is warm, bubbly, talented, smart, organized and reads flavors with the sensitivity of one whose palette is well developed. She has a huge following of fans. She was perfect and most importantly, she was game. I can and will learn from Lynne and her dishes will inspire me just as they will inspire our students. This is continuing education for chefs and students alike.

Here is our challenge, should we choose to accept it (uh, too late to back out now):

Make a restaurant worthy dish using the following ingredients (we are allowed to throw one out that we don't want to work with)

Challenge #1:

hazelnuts, black cod, winter greens, beets, mushrooms, pancetta, rosemary, winter squash

Challenge #2:

duck, spelt, pear, goat cheese, yams, cherries, spinach, lavender

Our first class is at Greenlake PCC next Tuesday. I can't wait. Oh, and Lynne? One more thing.... can I be the diva with the viking helmet?

Please?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Good Morning

Welcome to a kinder, gentler, smarter United States of America.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The new economy

Reading the Sunday paper at a local coffee spot is a much-anticipated weekend activity. We don't always get to do it, but when we do, it's such a lazy luxury. Every once in awhile I peek over the edge of my section and catch the wine goddess' eyes and share some little random bit of news. Recently my report goes like this: "Holy hell, listen to this, blah blah blah's restaurant just closed!" We shake our heads and silently mourn the latest victim of our new economy. April, the wine goddess' other, less descriptive, name reads liberally from the local section, sharing tidbits of truly hideous crimes and I duck my head back into what used to be the food section to replace the image of the latest murder with a recipe for oyster stew.

Each day the paper seems to get smaller and smaller; newspaper room cutbacks are a piece of this new economic reality. I imagine that suddenly Seattle-ites are oversleeping, the familiar thunk of the paper hitting the door gone; the gentle swoosh of the newspaper pamphlet lulling subscribers back to sleep.

Reading the paper is becoming less and less a relaxing way to pass the time. This week's headlines were dominated by the flood waters and extensive damage, massive evacuations, people's lives destroyed overnight. Today's Times discusses how Seattle will most certainly be losing the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the other city paper, in operation for 146 years.

I like to be kept abreast of the news, but when the paper, radio and tv are constantly sharing bad news it grows increasingly hard to muster the intestinal fortitude to stay current. The new economy is making me dive into an alternate reality and until our media starts reporting on the good news, and healthy perspectives that surround us (much good can come out of reprioritizing our spending habits and simplifying in general) I'm content to keep one ear listening to the news and my eyes and heart on escapist literature and food t.v.

Today we met up with an old friend at one of my favorite coffee spots. El Diablo makes fantastically smooth coffees, in the Cuban style. They won my heart the day I realized that their so-called Yanqui drink was pronounced "Yankee" as in (you silly gringa) an Americano. Of course, I asked what it was, cluelessly putting what I thought was an authentic Spanish accent on the made-up word. I might as well have screamed, "HI I'M WHITE!"

"Hard Times Fruit Cocktail"

On a gray Seattle winter day, stepping into El Diablo is therapeutic. The warm gold to orange tones and colorful walls replete with whimsical murals are transporting. The sandwiches are excellent and their batidos (tropical fruit smoothies with complementary mini-umbrella) in the summer are fabulous. However, even perpetually cheery El Diablo can't avoid the affect of the downturn in the economy; my ham and cheese sandwich came with a fruit salad I nicknamed "Hard Times Fruit Cocktail". One quarter of a strawberry, one singular 1/2" by 1/2" cube of mango.


Instead of reading the paper, we chat, catch up, sip on our coffees and laugh at the intense food-cost management that led to the decision to put that lonely quarter of a strawberry on the plate. To distract us further from these realities, we slip into the adjacent bookstore and lose ourselves in the aisles; my head tucks between the pages of the latest cookbooks, April gets lost in the wine section. I leave with the book "What Einstein told his cook" by Robert L. Wolke. Just 7 years after Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics, the world slid into the Great Depression. Sounds like timely reading, no?

Monday, January 5, 2009

B'stilla

Also known as Pastilla, Bsteeya, Bastilla or in Arabic: بسطيلة

B'stilla is a Moroccan dish traditionally made with squab (aka a pigeon that hasn't yet learned to fly) Awwww, that makes me sort of sad. Not sad enough not to eat it, mind you, just sad enough to say "awwww". If I were a poet I might say, as Ogden Nash did,
Toward a better world I contribute my modest smidgen; I eat the squab, lest it become a pigeon.
I remember the first time I tried B'stilla; it was nothing short of a revelation. I was used to eating my sweets separate from my dinner. There's the dinner stomach, and if I'm to stick with my childhood anatomical drawings, there's also the dessert stomach - the latter placed just behind the former, similar in purpose and size but always, always empty.

I was taught that there were two categories of food: savory and sweet and except for a few notable exceptions, never the two shall meet. Exceptions might include the original "crack-salad" of the 80's that had ramen noodles right from the package, mandarin oranges from the can, rice vinegar, sugar and cabbage in it (tip o' the keyboard to Jen's aunt for introducing me to it), that ubiquitous ham-steak with the too-perfect circular bone with gooey, nasty, high fructose corn syrup laden "teriyaki" sauce spooged all over it, and finally my a-ha moment when I pulled my bacon through my pancake's "maple" syrup (because you know that racist Aunt Jemima syrup never saw a maple tree). In general, though, you ate your dinner and it wasn't sweet. Then, if you were a good girl - and how I tried to be! - you got your dessert and it was sweet as sin.

I'm taking a month off of sugar. You could call it a New Year's Resolution but I know it won't ultimately resolve anything. Hi, my name is Becky and I'm addicted to sugar. Perhaps this is why I'm drawn to this recipe today. If I put the sugar directly into my dinner I can still sort of fool myself into believing that I'm off sugar for a month.

The Moroccans, they know how to live man. They don't wait for the sweetness in life, they just pump it right into their dinner.

And so, enter the B'stilla: a savory-sweet meat pie enriched with toasted almonds and eggs, and enlivened with spices like cinnamon, coriander and saffron; swoon-worthy spices made even more heavenly with the addition of orange flower water. Then, when the whole thing emerges from your oven, all crackly-brown and hello gorgeous, it gets flipped out onto a plate (ta-da!) and dusted with a glorious flurry of confectioner's sugar. If you're me, you mix some Greek yogurt with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses and you main-line that right along with the hot-sweet meat pie.

B'stilla
There is nothing more likely to impress your friends than something made with phyllo dough. Truth is it's really easy to work with if you remember a few simple rules.
  1. Thaw it completely (in the fridge the night before)
  2. Unroll it on your counter and lay some plastic wrap over the top and then a dampened cloth over that. This will keep the phyllo protected from drying out as you work with it. A dried out piece of phyllo will crumble in your hands like an ancient scroll - poof, gone.
If you remember these two things, you'll see that working with phyllo is really simple. And really, you should tell your friends to save their compliments for the industrious folks that make phyllo or warka (phyllo's thinner - thinner! - cousin) from scratch. Now that is impressive.

This, feh, a monkey could make.

Ingredients

Filling
2 tbsps vegetable oil
2 pounds chicken -- about 1/2 of a small chicken (I prefer dark meat), bone-in, skin-on or use squab (flightless, baby pigeon) to be real authentic-like
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 tbsp, ginger, freshly grated
½ tsp, turmeric
½ tsp black pepper, ground
1 cinnamon stick
pinch saffron
1 tsp sea salt
1 cup cilantro, chopped
1 tsp orange flower water, optional
6 eggs
salt and pepper to taste

Almond Mixture
½ pound almonds, whole, toasted
½ cup sugar (if you don't like things so sweet, 1/4 cup is perfectly fine)
2 tbsp cinnamon, ground

4 each phyllo dough, large sheets
2 tbsp butter, melted, or olive oil

Garnish
Powdered sugar
Cinnamon, Ground

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat a pan over medium high heat. Add the vegetable oil and brown the chicken and onions well, about 10 minutes. Add the chicken and onions to a large pot with the carrot, celery, ginger, turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon stick, saffron and salt. Add just enough water to cover the chicken. Bring to a boil and then simmer until the chicken is tender (about 30 minutes). Pull the chicken out to cool. Meanwhile, bring the stock to a slow boil and reduce the liquid down to 1 cup. Strain the stock. Discard the solids, pressing on them to extract every last drop of liquid. Reduce the stock further to 1/3 cup of liquid. Set aside. Remove the bones and skin from the cooled chicken, shred the meat and then mix with the cilantro. Set aside.

Heat a frying pan over medium high heat. Mix the eggs with a fork and season well with salt and pepper. Cook the eggs along with the reserved liquid from above, until soft scrambled. Do not let them dry out, lean on the side of under cooking the eggs (they will continue cooking in the oven) Mix together with the meat and optional orange flower water until well combined.

Put the almond mixture into a food processor and grind until the almonds are crushed to a slightly chunky powder.

Get an oven-proof skillet (cast iron works perfectly). Brush the skillet with melted butter. Unfold a layer of the phyllo a bit more than halfway across the skillet, and then lay the other layer/sheet of dough over the other half, so they overlap in the middle and stick out beyond the edges of the pan. Brush with butter. Repeat with another layer.

Spread 1/2 of the almond mixture over the dough, then the chicken and egg mixture, then the rest of the almond mixture. Fold the phyllo dough in and over the filling from all sides, making sure to cover all the filling. Brush the top with melted butter.

Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes, until light brown. Turn over skillet (gently!) onto a plate to remove the B’stilla.

Sift a heavy layer of powdered sugar over the pastry. Then shake lines of cinnamon in a cross-cross pattern over the top of the sugar. Serve immediately.


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