Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Diet Series: Mushroom Soup

As I have alluded to in many of these posts, my life is a battle between my desire to look like I did at 25 and my obsession with eating. Unfortunately, lately, the obsession has won out...meaning an unfortunate weight gain which I have been ignoring until my trainer forced me to step on the scale. That nasty number has driven me back into my starvation diet mode. So, as you can imagine, that will mean less tasty recipes or restaurant reviews for a while. But, I can give you the fruits of my labor in trying to make my diet less onerous. Thus, I will try to publish my more successful and tasty diet dishes. Now, note these ARE diet dishes, and thus they are less tasty then they would be if I added more butter, cream and other luscious items. I will however give you suggestions for these kinds of additions, just in case you aren't trying to starve yourself like I am. Some of the dishes, I note, would be perfectly lovely as they are, if they were say, followed by a steak or triple cheeseburger....but I digress.

Soup is an excellent thing when you are on a diet. The high proportion of liquid makes it (almost) guaranteed to be low cal and relatively filling, although sadly, the satiation effect only lasts about 10 minutes. So here is my mushroom soup. It is a cinch to make and can be gussied up for guests or just eaten as is. It really is pretty good.

12 ounces sliced button mushrooms (that is 1 1/2 of those little pre-sliced boxes...go ahead make life easier on yourself) (75 calories)
1 large handful shitake mushrooms, sliced (15 calories)
1 handful dried porcini mushrooms, crumbled (30 calories)
1 large onion, chopped (50 calories)
a couple cloves of garlic, chopped
2 cups (16 fluid oz) chicken broth (20 calories)
1 chicken bullion cube
handful of fresh rosemary, chopped
2 tablespoons butter (200 calories)
About 1 cup water, to thin the soup to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a soup pot on medium heat, add chopped onion and garlic. Cook until onions are soft. Reserve a handful of the button mushrooms, and put the rest in the pot, along with the shitake mushrooms and rosemary. Fry for a few minutes. Add the chicken broth. Assuming that you are using canned broth, add the bullion cube. If you happen to have some really great homemade chicken broth, then nix the cube. Add the water...better to add less than more; you can always thin it out later. Bring to a boil and let cook for about 15 minutes (more time won't hurt at all) until the mushrooms are tender. Take your whoozy whoo immersion blender thingy and whizz it all up until smooth (Need I say that you can also put it in your food processor or a blender, if you lack this essential kitchen tool?). Take the reserved mushrooms and chop them quite finely and put in the soup. This gives it a bit of texture. Simmer it for a few more minutes until the newly added mushrooms are tender. Now, taste the whole thing and add some pepper to taste and some salt, if it needs it. If it is too thick, add some more water (or cream, see below).

It tastes pretty good, huh? It will be quite thick and creamy from the pureed mushrooms. The dried porcini, shitake, and rosemary give it a lot of flavor. If you don't have any dried porcini, then you can increase the shitake to button mushroom ratio. Probably you can just do it will the button mushrooms but the flavor will be more bland. The calorie content of the whole pot of soup is about 400 calories. It will feed 4 people as a starter, and 2 hungry dieters...but even if you eat the whole pot yourself, at this calorie level, you can afford it.

If you aren't on a diet and you want the yummiest soup possible, then clearly, you will be wanting to add some cream at the end. Don't add too much though, the soup is already quite rich. At 52 calories per tablespoon for heavy whipping cream, you don't want to go overboard...You can also throw in some croutons, freshly made with butter, and maybe top the whole thing with some chopped chives, for some elegance. You could instead put a dollop of creme fraiche (or sour cream--26 calories per tablespoon--we don't have to be so fancy) as a garnish instead of the cream in the soup. It will look elegant and not add as many calories. You can also vary the herbs, if you prefer. Dill, thyme or tarragon would also taste good. My rosemary bush just happens to be outside my door and I like that combination with the earthy porcini. If I were just doing button mushrooms, then I would probably use dill, which will give a very different flavor but compliment the relatively blandness of the white mushrooms.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pizzaiola--Justifiably Popular

Last night, Peter and I were feeling pretty mellow, so we decided it was the right night to try Pizzaiolo, the popular Italian in the Temescal area of Oakland. The problem with this restaurant is that they don't take reservations, and every time we have passed, normally to go to Dona Tomas, a yummy Mexican, there has been a huge amount of people waiting. Peter and I do not like to wait, which is why we have waited this long to go to Pizzaiolo. When we got to the restaurant, we immediately liked it; it has a warm inviting atmosphere, there was some great jazz music in the background, and the pizzas on most of the tables looked delicious. What we didn't like was finding out that Pizzaiolo has been taking reservations since 3 months back! And we didn't like that it would take an hour for us to get a table....we pouted a bit and the maitre d' took pity on us and said we might be able to get a table outside in the back patio quicker. Meanwhile, we took advantage of the waiting time to get a drink. They have a great list of cocktails. I ordered an Elderflower Martini (gin, elderflower syrup, lime, and bitters) which was divine. I could get very drunk on those. In fact, I could get very drunk on one of those, lightweight that I am.

We managed to squeeze in at the bar, after a not too long wait. I started with Housemade Mortadella with asparagus and gnocco fritto. The Mortadella was tasty, with extra pistachio nuts on the side. The asparagus was served cold with dressing and was very good--although not as delicious as the asparagus I had picked that day in my garden and eaten raw! The gnocco fritto is basically just deep fried pieces of dough. Kind of tasty with the mortadella but a little dissapointing since I had pictured something more gooey and perhaps cheesy. Peter had Salt Cod Mantecato with toast from the wood oven. This is sort of a paste made with salt cod and mashed potato, salty and goopy. We liked it. We had a hard time picking the main course...I always love pasta, and Peter was partial to trying the braised pork. But the pizza beckoned with irristable force. We decided on Manila clams, tomato, and green garlic aioli. I tried to convince Peter we could have the pork also, but he pointed out that I had already eaten half of our boys macaroni and cheese dinner before we left our house, and that we couldn't possible eat two main courses. I hate it when the man is sensible! The pizza was delicious--the crust thin and blistered by the wood burning stove, the clams salty, the tomatoes fresh tasting, and the aioli, a welcome creamy, garlicy accent.

Finally, onto dessert. I selected apple fritters with icecream, and debated ordering the dark chocolate gelato for Peter (i.e two desserts for me since Peter normally doesn't eat dessert) but decided that there should be limits to my greediness. Peter ordered a double espresso but the bartender told him he should just have a single because they were large. When Peter got his slightly large but not as big as a double espresso cup, he scowled and started grumbling. I punched him and told him to stop it. After all, we wanted to come to this restaurant again, and we needed the staff to like us. So he asked me, " I shouldn't stand up and pull out my d***, and tell the waitress to suck this?" I said, well, it would be very funny, but no. I think it is better if you resist. On that note, we polished off our coffee and I licked the last of the icecream off the spoon, and left, promising to return soon.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Divine Salmon with Dill Cream

Peter made an absolutely fantastic dinner this evening: Salmon with Dill Cream and Riced Potatoes. These flavors are classic Swedish, and for good reason, because they are delicious together. It is a perfect meal for this time of year. The cream sauce gives it a satisfying richness which warms you against the cold weather, while the dill gives it freshness, alluding to the coming spring. . The meal is simplicity itself to make. It hardly needs a recipe. But here is one:

1 or 2 large wild salmon fillets, to feed 2 to 4 people, with the skin on
1/2 pint cream
potatoes for 2 to 4 persons
one large bunch dill
salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce: Chop up the dill, not too finely, and add to the cream in a saucepan. Salt and pepper to taste. Boil up the cream, and let simmer slowly and reduce while you prepare the rest of the meal. To finish the sauce, add the juices from the pan after you have fried the fish.

For the potatoes: Peel and quarter the potatoes and boil in salted water for 20 minutes or until a fork stuck in a potato slides out easily. Drain water from pot. To hold the potatoes until you are ready with everything else, just put a dishcloth or paper towel over the pot and the lid on top of that. The potatoes will stay hot for at least half an hour and the towel will absorb extra water so the potatoes do not become soggy. When ready to serve, pass the potatoes through a potato ricer. This is basically a kind of press, which you can buy inexpensively at any good cook store. This tool produces a fluffy texture which is a perfect vehicle for the sauce. If you do not have a ricer, you can just mash the potatoes, but the texture will not be as good.

For the fish: With a thin knife, slice the skin off of the meat and save. Salt and pepper the salmon fillet generously on both sides and rub the spices in. Heat a pan until very hot and put in the butter. Fry the fish briefly on each side to get a good surface, then lower the heat and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, depending on the thickness of the fish, until it is done how you like it. Take the fish out of the pan and put on a plate to rest. Meanwhile, salt and pepper the skin on both sides, rubbing in the salt well. Put the skin in the pan that you fried the salmon in and fry on both sides until crispy. Be careful to watch it and don't let it burn.

To serve: Cut a nice chunk of the salmon for each person, and plate with a mound of riced potatoes. Drizzly the sauce generously over the salmon and potatoes. Slice the fried skin into thin slices, about 1/4 inch thick, and top the salmon with a few slices per person. The skin is optional, but really delicious and provides a satisfying crunch. For our family, the skin is the best part, and we invariably fight over the last pieces.

If you don't enjoy this fish, is hard to imagine and you must have a sad life!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Chicken Dinner

Well folks, they were good! Peter fried fried up two chickens in butter after salting and peppering and then roasted two in lemon and garlic. The flavor was really good...very chickeny. The fried chicken tasted particularly good. The meat was tender and very flavorful. The roasted chickens tasted good but the meat came out much tougher. So, I think the quicker cooking method of frying suits these birds, or probably a long stewing to keep them tender. With the birds, we had mashed potatoes, a marsala mushroom sauce, and spinach with garlic. The meal was really delicious. For dessert, I made rasberry cream cupcakes. Easy and pretty tasty. Chicken Success!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

And then there were 18....

Those 25 fuzzy cute chicks we received the first week of December, as you can see, didn't stay fuzzy and cute for very long. By four weeks old, they were clearly little chickens as opposed to cute little chicks. They stayed in luxury quarters in our sun room for about 6 weeks, until they got a bit too messy...we then moved them to equally luxurious quarters in our guest cottage. The dust they generated covered the whole cottage...when we finally moved them outside at about 8 weeks, we had to scrub down the entire cottage. The mortality rate of our chicks was excellent. Only one died a few days after arrival. So then there were 24. We eagerly awaited the tell-tale signs of roosterdom, in order that we might start culling the flock and eating delicious chicken dinners. Except that it was impossible to tell which were roosters and which were hens. They looked exactly alike. We started reading up on sexing chickens...the books say that you can tell by their behavior...more aggressive; roosters, less aggressive hens....they say you can tell by size; roosters are bigger. But hens develop faster....larger combs, roosters...but hens develop the combs first.... We were totally confused. And hungry.

Finally, the two biggest chickens, the Americanas, we decided were definitely roosters. And they looked tasty. We were not the only ones with this opinion because some Brazilian construction workers (we are remodeling our house) asked us if they could buy some chickens for their Saturday night dinner. They offered us $15 each! At this price, we could start to recoup some chicken costs! So then there were 22. Further, we decided that three of our Buff Orphingtons were surely roosters. Their combs were large with wattles and they were developing curly tail feathers. Plus one of them had a defective beak, and another was very aggressive. One of our Barred Rocks was also aggressive and we thought he was probably a rooster. So, we decided that dinner awaits.

This morning, we had our first chicken slaughter. And then there were 18! It went smoothly. I was a worried that the children might be traumatized and wanted to prepare them. They had, after all, been petting them and feeding them for the last 12 weeks. But before I could give them my little "nature" speech, they were already asking Peter if they could pick the chickens to be killed and were quite happy about the whole event. I guess our frequent reminders that the chickens were not pets and that we would eat them worked, along with the natural blood thirstiness of our children... Peter did the slaughtering and then we both dipped them in boiling water and plucked them. A bit messy but quite easy. They are pretty small. A bit larger than a Cornish hen, but definitely smaller than a grocery store hen. We are roasting them for dinner tonight. I will let you know if their flavor meets our expectations.

If they are good, then we are considering buying more in the early summer, just for eating. If we do that, we have decided that we will buy a meat breed to get a fatter eating bird. And this time, we will buy them pre-sexed, so that we don't have to guess!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Two Underrated Restaurants

We have recently been to two restaurants that we really like, but that do not seem to be as popular as their yumminess warrants, in our humble opinion.

We went to Zuppa for Valentine's Day dinner. Zuppa is an airy loft-like place on 4th Street, in San Francisco, in the middle of the bustling SOMA district. Perhaps the problem is that they are competing with so many other good places like Coco500 and Bacar. But still, for the food, the place we come back to is Zuppa. We like the atmosphere and the service. There is a fabulous Sicilian waitress who manages to remember us, even though we don't go very often. She always recommends our wine, normally a Sicilian one, and it is always good. It doesn't hurt that she is quite attractive. She never seems ruffled when Peter gets a bit more drunk than your average American. She seems to think, perhaps, that this is a good thing. The great part about Zuppa's food are the starters, pizza, and pasta. They lack a bit on the main courses which tend to be fine, but not as delicious as what preceded. For this reason, we tend to just get a lot of the smaller dishes and share. On Valentines Day, we started off with some paper thin slices of Coppa, a type of cured meat. We then moved on to a tripe dish. I am not a big tripe fan. For me, it is just a vehicle for sauce. Peter and my son Gustaf, however, love the stuff. This tripe was the best I have ever had. It was served in a spicy tomato sauce which was so good that once the tripe was gone, and I had finished dipping my bread in it, Peter tipped up the bowl and slurped down the rest of the sauce. We then moved onto a pizza, which they really do well. All of them sounded great, but I decided on a ricotta with potato, bacon, and an egg. This reminded me of one of my favorite pizza's that I used to get with regularity in London, the aptly named English breakfast with sausage, mushroom, and a big egg on the top. The pizza was yummy, although slightly too peppery for my taste. We ended with pasta. I had shrimp and crab on linguine, which was creamy and delicious but not too heavy. Peter had a lamb ragu on top of thick peppardelle. It was hearty and rich, as one might expect. By this time, we were pretty full. But I couldn't resist dessert: a creamy panna cotta served with raisins stewed in wine . We left replete and satisfied, as we have done the last 3 or 4 times we have been there.

Yesterday, we stopped by for a late lunch at Taste (1513 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley) which is located in the new, dare I say, food mall in the Gourmet Ghetto. Taste is a wine bar with food. They have these machines where you can try various types of wine, by serving yourself. Kind of cool. But they have been through a few chefs and a number of incarnations since they have opened. Last time we were there, they were serving very seriously good food. A little too good for the decor and location. Now, they have changed concept to more of a tapas, echoing their neighbor Cesar. But their inspiration is all over the place. We had a charcuterie plate with some good cured meats and a nice chicken rillette. We followed that with some crispy spring rolls filled with the rillette and shiitake mushrooms, with a fresh chili dipping sauce. That was so yummy, we ordered another. We had a Moroccan chicken thing, which was good, but not great. We had French fries served with aioli. More yum. Finally, a banana fritter for dessert. This could use some improvement...maybe a caramel sauce would have upped the yum quotient. Still, the service was nice, and sitting by the window on a sunny day, snacking our way through the menu, seemed an absolutely fine way to fill our afternoon.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Easy Luxury Salmon Dinner

I am a fan of Giada De Laurentiis's Easy Italian. Tonight I decided to try her Salmon in Lemon Brodetto with Pea Puree. (Click on the recipe title to get her recipe on Food Network). Picture a golden brown fillet of salmon over a fresh pea puree and surrounded by a lemon infused broth. Sound good? It is, it is disgustingly easy and it looks and tastes really lovely. The whole thing can be made in about half an hour, working slowly. First I made the pea puree, in my whizzy whoo, of course. The fun thing about the puree is that you use frozen peas, defrosted but uncooked. The puree tastes wonderful. I think I might serve it sometime as a dip with bread. I added a bit more garlic than the recipe called for and a touch less olive oil and parmeson to try to cut down on the calories. Still tasted great. I think the quality of the olive oil really makes a difference in the taste here. I am currently using Apollo 2006 Sierra Organic Olive Oil, which tastes lovely.

The broth is a cinch to make, using canned chicken broth. That is one of things I like about Giada's cooking; she doesn't tell you to use homemade chicken broth, which you of course have in your freezer because you religiously cook up vats of it to have on hand. Don't get me wrong, I am sure homemade would taste better, but the reality is that 99% of the time, I don't happen to have any on hand.

Finally, you sear the salmon fillets in olive oil after seasoning with salt and pepper. Assemble the dish, and it just looks fantastic. It tastes fresh but with enough richness to make it satisfying. Make it for you or for your next dinner party. I am sure you will be pleased!