Monday, March 31, 2014

David Tanis at Chino Farm

I have made no secret of my love of the Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe, where I can find the freshest and finest produce in the world, often reminiscent of French markets, with a distinctly Californian flair yet with strong influences of Japan and Italy.   There is no place like it anywhere in the world.  Yesterday I was there for a book signing for Chez Panisse alumnus David Tanis.   The event was relatively low-key, providing an opportunity to chat with one of this country’s best chefs and food artists.  And it was, quite simply, a quiet riot of color and the abundance of spring.  


Throughout the farm stand and the service & signing tables, there was a glorious harmony of produce, flowers and color.  As usual, nothing “too much,” it was, of course, perfectly perfect…


Flowers were everywhere, in small “vases” carved from bell peppers in various shades.  And in the stand itself, one could find an impressive lineup of edible flowers: big, beautiful nasturtium~


The leaves too….which I can just imagine on a plate with a small crotin of fresh goat cheese on top~


Rose geranium and flowering sage made a great visual contrast; these geranium flowers found their way onto my whipped cream-topped flourless chocolate cake last evening, and were delicious and beautiful~


Another variety of nasturtium was also available, along with a wide assortment of micro greens, calling to finish a big beautiful salad~


Small vessels held flowering French thyme, broccolini (I think) and arugula flowers~


Perhaps in a nod to the cover photo of David’s new book, there were beautiful varieties of radishes and daikon~


The sight of small violetta artichokes, very fresh fava beans and fresh or “green” garlic had my mouth watering for some Italian food….


I wait for “green” garlic all year, since I much prefer it to the stronger and more mature bulbs.  Last night we had this semi-raw with a quick toss of Cremini mushrooms over JW’s chicken and rice.  As the short season matures, the white ends may be more bulbous; I’ll chop and fry those small cloves with French fries, and my family loves the slightly garlicky fries as well as the crispy little cloves.  If you live in LA, my favorite farm for fresh garlic is Johnny Suede, who sells at the Sunday Pacific Palisades farmers market.  He picks the garlic fresh, with beautiful long green tops that will look like a rooster’s tail  coming out of your basket.  But in San Diego, I’m getting my fresh green garlic at Chino~


Starting at one end of the stand and moving down the line with the crowd, there was one fresh treat after another.  I could fill so many baskets here!


Tom Chino was there, in front of the beautiful greens.  I’m constantly admiring their vast collection of cookbooks and foodie reference books on the wall behind as I shop.  I’m not a big consumer of cookbooks, but most of those I own have come from Chino signings.  And I love and use every book I have bought here.


And in the adjacent field, we could catch a glimpse of things to come…summer’s stone fruits are on their way~


Behind the stand, we watched as the crostini was toasted perfectly on the grill~


to be married a moment later with a slice of David’s spinach cake…this was simple and very delicious; I had three, thank you~


The warm spring morning and the casual pace allowed me time to chat with some of the Farm’s friends, who seem to be at every event.  Thanks to Shona and Ian for the amazing orange juice from Shona’s Father’s grove and the chilled lemon-cucumber water.  I had several glasses to wash down the crostini~


And then after a bite and a refresher, I was off to browse David’s books.  This is his latest; One Good Dish


Right next to the books were a large basket of authentic and rustic baguettes.  I’ll be visiting this bakery soon, and one came home with me for Sunday dinner;


In the end, I bought not one, but two of David Tanis’ books. I’ve been wanting  A Platter of Figs for a long time, and now I’ve got a signed copy.  I’ll be making lobster risotto and green lasagne with greens very soon.  It’s the classics taken up a notch.  I really love the intro, as he tells of making dinner in Venice, at home, with friends, for a birthday.  It reminds me a lot of eating in Beaune, where I love to say we are either talking about what we will cook, carefully shopping for it, preparing it, eating it, or talking about how great it was.   I share (shall I say embrace) his philosophy that eating at home often trumps eating out.  That Great Food is made at home in much of France and Italy.  And in places like Burgundy and Brittany, Rome or Paris, the locals know their seasons, what is great and what is best, by the season and by the week, and just where to buy it.  Can we eat like that here?  Yes.   Great, great book….


A moment after David signed my books, a girlfriend came running up to the table to ask me if I had indeed “served the girls rabbit” during their recent visit with us in Beaune.  Why yes, yes I did, I said, while being slightly embarrassed in front of Le David.  “The girls” are chefs, and lapin Dijonnaise is one of our favorite meals in Burgundy.   Something magical happens when you combine mustard, white wine and rabbit.  How was I to know these chefs were vegetarian?  And there were plenty of other dishes on offer that evening, including seafood.  But reading David’s book later that day at home, I was so glad to read his words…”rabbits are hideously misunderstood in this country…” as an interesting intro to a brief discussion of rabbit.  David mentions in the book that every chef has a rabbit story.  I remember sitting at the Alliance in Paris, telling my French teacher that we don’t eat the Easter Bunny, it brings us chocolates and eggs… she was so puzzled by this concept.  Fast forward twenty years, I love to bring visitors to the market at Louhans in Burgundy to show them the live poultry and animal market, but most importantly the reverence and respect and care that goes into raising these animals, including rabbit, at small farms.   No different than a chicken.  Love to see rabbit addressed in an American cookbook, though I never serve it here.


Meanwhile, in One Good Dish, I can find a lot of inspiration.  There are plenty of platter-worthy family dishes in the book, but also a great number of small items that I consider great food gifts: condiments including various sauces, Italian Hot Pepper Oil, Candied Grapefruit Peel, jarred cheeses and pickled ginger.  I am always looking for great food gifts, and David has given me some fresh ideas that I know my friends and family can use.  I also can’t wait to make his dish radishes à la crème, in Laguna and later in Beaune, with local crème. 


The breaded Eggplant Cutlets will be great snacks for family this summer on the patio, or perhaps for  a farm to table dinner~


  I love the exotic elements that have been incorporated here, like Saffron and Lemon Risotto.


But at noon today I chose my first recipe from the book according to what I had on hand: rainbow Swiss chard and green garlic.  I made David’s Swiss Chard al Forno, but used a little French quatre-epices instead of nutmeg, and Comté, since that was what was in the fridge.  I like that this recipe uses the chard stalks, which usually end up in the compost.  And my family has never met anything with Béchamel that they didn’t devour. 


Two of my neighbours happened to stop with their dog by as the gratin was finishing.  And wouldn’t you know it, the three of us ate the entire dish, in my kitchen with the Dutch door  open, with a glass or three of wine and lots of laughs… it was supposed to last until dinner, with a filet of sole, but so much for that, we devoured the whole thing, spoon by spoon.  It’s one of those dishes you just can’t stop eating….


This is going into my rotation and will be featured at Easter with leg of lamb, though I am going to have to make several dishes of it.  I also really love that I can set it up ahead of time and pop it in the oven as guests arrive.  It was soooo good.  Of course it was, it’s by David Tanis…

As always, thank you Chino Farm for hosting another lovely event.  If you are looking for a little cooking inspiration, do track down David’s books or his NYTimes column.  I’m looking forward to trying more of these recipes this spring and summer here and in Beaune.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Almond Milk & Middle Ages Soup

Every now and then, somewhere in France, you will stumble upon a menu offering that includes the words Moyen Âge or Middle Ages.  It gets your attention, right?  Often times, this ends up being a dish created with a base of Almond Milk.  While many of us today appreciate almond milk for its dietary advantages (primarily because it is non-dairy and so lactose-free, and also cholesterol free), in the Middle Ages almond milk was important for different reasons.  Since cow’s milk would spoil quickly, it was reserved for butter and cheeses, and almond milk was used instead for many baking and cooking purposes.   And for religious holidays where fasting was required, such as during Lent, in the Middle Ages the restrictions were greater than today: dictating no dairy, no animal products and no meat.  Almond milk isn’t so bad in a dish if you consider the alternative: water…

The word almond comes from the Old French word Almande, and production continues to be centered in the Mediterranean climates of the world, including Spain, Italy, Iran and France.  French production is small, amounting to only about 20% of what is consumed in France.  I look for them at the French markets, and if I ever see raw or powdered almonds listed as French origin, I buy them!  Here in California we grow about 80% of the world’s almonds.  But we also have all kinds of crazy rules and laws, which require almonds to be steamed, pasteurized, irradiated or chemically treated before they are sold, even if they are still described as “raw.”  It’s one of the things that really drives me crazy, how something that has been treated can still be called raw, but you really can taste the difference, so you’ll have to shop around.   Farms like Hopkins are in many of the farmers markets, and can provide a truly raw almond.  Out of curiosity I bought these at Trader Joe’s this week; they are labelled as raw but they don’t taste particularly raw, to me.   Still, it’s what we’re going to use here since I want to show you how easy it is to make your own almond milk and then, how to make soup from it.

You will need:

Two pounds of raw almonds
One large bottle of Perrier
Filtered water, about 3 cups
A few kitchen bowls and a blender, mini-prep or a mortar & pestle if you are going manual!


Some recipes call for the almonds to be blanched (the brown skin or seedcoat removed) but I don’t bother as this means they have to be boiled and I’m after the raw taste.  Put the almonds in a bowl and pour enough Perrier on top to cover them plus about 1” of water on top.  Set a plate on top of the bowl to cover it and let the almonds sit on your kitchen counter for 1-2 days, stirring once or twice during that time.  They will absorb the water and swell up like this:


There is a difference between all of the almonds on the market as I mentioned; on the left above are bulk almonds from Smart & Final, and TJ almonds on the right.  But they both went into this batch of almond milk together.  After the almonds have absorbed the water, rinse them, and prepare a big bowl with a strainer on top, lined with a dish towel, like this: 


I’ve never dared to make almond milk the old fashioned way, in a mortar & pestle; though it sounds intriguing it also sounds like a lot of work, so I use a mini-prep.  And in case you ever want to make almond milk on short notice, you can grind them up in the mini-prep and let sit in water for an hour before blending.  Back to our basic recipe, though: add about 3/4 cup of almonds to the machine with a little water and grind to a paste.


Add about 3/4 cup more water to the paste and keep pulsing the machine.  You will start to see, it’s making a milk out of the almonds and water~


Pour this mixture into the lined bowl; this is to strain out the solids from the milk.  Work in batches until you have processed all of the almonds.  Depending on how concentrated you want to make your almond milk, add more or less water to your batch.  I find I like about three cups of water added to the almonds.  Move the mixture around in the bowl a little with a spoon to let the milk drain from the solids, into the bowl below.


Gather up the corners of the dishtowel and slowly squeeze out the milk from the solids; twist the cloth, with the solids inside, like this~


Congratulations!  Now you have a lovely bowl of non-dairy “milk.”


Did you know that Almond has recently passed Soy as the best selling nut milk?  Look for it at the grocery store, but note that they often add cane sugar, gum and other ingredients.  Look for a brand that has just almonds and water, or try to make your own.  And it does taste just like almonds, unless you want to add ground or stick cinnamon, chocolate, or vanilla extract.  All of those make great flavorings, especially in a glass of warm almond milk; here it is with a dash of cinnamon~


I ended up with a 1 litre bottle of almond milk for the fridge, and another cup for the soup I’m going to make.  Almond milk is great in coffee; I love the delicate flavor and non-dairy aspect, and it will also froth up perfectly just like cow’s milk for your morning cappuccino.  I don’t particularly like the taste of soy milk, but I love that of almond milk~


Now, as for that ball of stuff you have in the dishtowel, this is another benefit to making your own vs buying the milk; this is almond fiber; you can call it almond meal.  In some cases this can be processed a second time to make a weaker milk, but I just put it on a cookie sheet in a 200 degree oven in a few batches. 


At 200 degrees it’s dry but not browned; I’ll call it semi-raw, but it goes into the next batch of Dad’s granola, so he gets almond taste and fiber.  You can also use this instead of flour for some cakes, especially in a gluten-free flourless chocolate cake.  If you haven’t seen the recipe I showed before, go HERE.  The cake is even better with homemade almond meal.  Really good….


Almond milk figures into some of the oldest French recipes, including one of the 13 traditional Provençal Christmas dishes and a mix of white mush called Blanc-mange, which is white rice, white chicken and almond milk.  But now since it’s Friday and Lent, we are having no meat tonight; it’s fish and soup.  For my Middle Ages Soup you will need about a cup of almond milk and a large slice of squash or pumpkin.  I used a slice of my favorite Musquee de Provence that I got at the market last Saturday.  Remove the seeds but not the skin, and drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil.  Wrap in foil, and bake at 350 until fork tender, about 30 minutes.  Let cool and scoop out the flesh. 


Puree the cooked pumpkin with the almond milk in a blender or mini-prep until smooth; season with salt and white pepper; also add a little extra spice according to what you have on hand: think of nutmeg, clove, or quatre-epices aka Allspice.  Heat on low; sprinkle fresh herbs or nuts on top; we will enjoy this with a fat slice of pain Poilane tonight. 


I like this soup for its unusual taste; it’s hard to identify the flavor as almond, but it’s there.  The soup is also dairy-free.  And guaranteed to be a topic of conversation for your dinner as you explain how to make almond milk and why this soup can be called Middle Ages Soup.  Enjoy~