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Happy Holidays, everyone!

Before Nathan and I head out for Hong Kong tomorrow, I originally wanted to end 2009 (at least blog-wise) on a sweet note. We made chai tea panna cotta for Christmas Eve dinner at Nathan’s parents’ place and while the panna cotta did set (woo!), the unmolding was an ordeal in itself. Although it tasted great, we ended up slightly soupy panna cotta, so we’ll have to wait and try again in 2010. Stay tuned!

Instead, I’ll turn things over to Molly of Orangette, who wrote about one of my favorite discoveries of 2009 in her Bon Appetit column: Pomodori al Forno, or slow-roasted tomatoes. Something about the process of slow-roasting (ok ok, the cup of olive oil probably helps too) transforms even the crappiest tomatoes into gorgeously silky and delicious morsels. Lay them on some toasty baguette slices with a bit of goat cheese and you’ve got appetizers fit for any holiday party!

If I’m remembering correctly, my dear ex-roomie Laura tried this recipe with canned tomatoes and reported success also. So really, you can’t go wrong! And all that extra flavored olive oil left? May I suggest using as a dip for crusty bread or making it the base of an awesome pasta sauce?

I wish all of you a lovely holiday season, filled with excellent food, wine, and company!

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Many apologies for the severe lack of posts, but weirdly enough, I’ve been traveling an extraordinary amount lately. I find this turn of events quite strange because on the job description of a grad student, travel is usually at the bottom of the list (unless you’re in anthropology and work for someone Indiana Jones-esque, of course). I left in early October for two weeks in Hong Kong (3 days of conference, then 1.5 weeks of touristy fun with Nathan interrupted by 1 day of laying in bed with stomach flu – bleh!). Then, while still recovering from jetlag, I had to spend a weekend at Asilomar for my graduate program’s retreat. Now, I’m off again to Boston for another meeting next week. Whew!

It seems that while I was gone, summer has officially left us and we’re well into the rainy season here in SF. As much as I will miss the bounty of heirloom tomatoes, I’m excited for the arrival of winter squashes, which have already started appearing in our CSA box. I have grand plans to go totally soup-crazy soon enough, but until I have time to fill the freezer with tub after tub of chicken/vegetable stock, I have to think of other fun things to do with squashes.

So how about a simple butternut squash lasagna, to start?

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You may have noticed that when you mention ‘summer’ to us San Franciscans, we like nothing more than to complain about how our summers are freezing. Woe to us who have to live with foggy, misty days and frigid, windy nights! This summer, though, we’ve been getting more than our fair share of sweaty summer days so we (at least, I) haven’t been complaining as much. At first glance, it’s pretty awesome to not have to bundle up in sweaters in the middle of July and actually be able to wear those cute summer skirts hiding in the closet. But then when you realize the randomly hot and dry weather is literally burning up our state, being able to wear cute summer skirts hardly seems worth it.

Honestly, who needs really hot weather when there are plenty of other signs of summer around us? I’m talking, of course, about those summer fruits and vegetables! These days, even a salad quickly turns into a hugely colorful affair, because who can resist throwing in handfuls of sweet corn, green beans, and radishes? And I, for one, cannot bear to let our apartment be tomato-free even for a day. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the giant piles of berries, peaches, and apricots practically begging to be eaten! Speaking of which, I need to finish this entry stat because there’s a bowl of Royal Blenheim apricots calling my name.

This bread salad (call it ‘Panzanella’ to impress your friends or if you’re Alex Trebek) is one of the simplest, easiest, and summer-iest salads ever. And the extra good news? It lets you use that stale half-loaf of bread that’s been hanging out in your kitchen for days!

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Since our bacon-curing adventure gave us a beautiful chunk of homemade bacon, Nathan and I have started brainstorming all the different ways we can use it. As I mentioned before, our bacon turned out quite salty, so we can’t really eat slices of it for breakfast. But fear not, because as our friend Brian likes to say, everything tastes better with bacon!

For our first attempt, we wanted to use the bacon in a dish that still allowed it to be the star and not dress it up too much. The first thing out of my mouth was ‘pasta carbonara,’ one of my all-time favorite pasta dishes. This is another one of those pasta dishes that take as long to prepare as it does to cook the pasta, so that fulfilled our second goal: not having to wait too long before eating.

My carbonara usually involves a few more ingredients but this time, I opted for the simplest recipe possible for the sake of the bacon. Mario Batali comes to the rescue! His recipe talks about separating the egg yolk and egg white, so that you gently nestle the yolk on top after tossing the pasta with the egg whites. As much as I’m a big fan of seeing whole egg yolks on top of dishes, I actually prefer tossing the pasta with all of the eggs instead because it creates a creamier and clingier sauce.

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Crab-Scented Risotto

A few weeks ago, a bunch of friends from work decided to get together for CrabFest 2008. A similar event was held in 2007 and it was such a success that people kept wondering when we would hold the 2008 version. If you remember though, we had a silly oil spill here that coincided with the usual start of crab season, so us crabby folks in the Bay Area have had to wait a while before we can feast on our local crawly friends, making us extra crabby. (Ha! Oh yes, I just went there.)

If you’ve never been to a crab-eating party, what I can tell you is that the aftermath is not pretty, no matter how delicious the crabs were (and ours were quite excellent). There are crab shells everywhere and you tend to find random bits of crab meat in your hair or on your clothes. The home of the host inevitably smells like crab for a few days afterwards and let’s just say there’s a reason you don’t see many advertisements for crab-scented home fragrance.

But wait, there’s a silver (red?) lining to this crabby cloud! If you manage to leave the party with a little pile of crab shells (I like to take 3-4 of the big body pieces since no one really chews on those), you can go home and make yourself a big pot of crab stock. On a lazy night, you can cook up some somen noodles, heat some stock up, add soy sauce to taste, and have yourself a bowl of crab noodle soup for dinner. On a not-so-lazy night, you can make a crab-scented risotto like this one. Of course, you can put actual crab meat in the risotto too – just stir in cooked crab meat at the end.

(ps: Did you spot my oh-so-subtle method to make you jealous in the photo above? Ooo! Look at us! We ate at a fancy restaurant!)

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Romanesco Frittata

A few weeks ago, I learned about the Mariquita Farm Mystery Thursdays from one of my favorite foodie blogs 101 cookbooks. Since our regular CSA boxes from Terra Firma Farm don’t usually come with extra-crazy vegetables and I’ve been wanting to explore some exotic ones, I convinced Nathan to try out a ‘mystery box’ from Mariquita. Lucky for us, the next delivery was scheduled for Incanto, one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants!

After handing over $25 on a drizzly night, we were handed a ginormous bag loaded with way over $25 worth of goodies, some of which definitely satisfied my exotic craving. We got a huge bag of baby carrots that look like they were just pulled out of the ground, a bunch of red(!) carrots, a few bunches of tatsoi, a couple heads of escarole, some tiny heads of little gem lettuce, a gnarly celery root, a few parsnip-like objects that turned out to be parsley roots, a few bunches of puntarelle (which came with the simple suggestion to dress them in a mustard-anchovy vinigarette – yum!), a winter squash, a romanesco, and a bag of red potatoes for good measure.

Our favorite item of the entire bag was this beautifully fractal yet slightly surreal romanesco:

Romanesco

After admiring it in our fridge for a few days, we finally decided to do something with it even though it really hurt to mess up such a lovely manifestation of a mathematical concept. But let’s say it’ll still be fractaly in our stomach, shall we? Part of the romanesco ended up in a simple pasta dish with red chile flakes, lemon, garlic, and plenty of olive oil. The other part ended up in a frittata. I used a sprig of green garlic that came in our regular CSA box but a small clove of normal garlic will be fine too. And of course, you can use any ‘sturdy’ vegetable you like in place of the romanesco – in the coming spring, asparagus would make a great frittata!

Will eating fractals make you better at math? I hope so!

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Linguine with Arugula and Black Pepper

You know what? I used to be addicted to those super-quick pasta packages you find at the supermarket – you know, the Kraft mac-n-cheeses and the Pasta Ronis in assorted flavors. When I was in college, my roommates and I had a little hot plate in our dorm room, to which we would resort when the food at the dining hall was especially terrible that day. When all you have is a single hot plate and a little saucepan (and a whole night of homework ahead of you), those instant pasta things came in pretty handy. When I graduated from college, I would still turn to those pasta packages when I didn’t have time to really cook. When I moved to Berkeley and decided to eat healthier and more organic, I started buying Annie’s mac-n-cheese instead.

Today, I’m proud to say I’ve been Kraft-free (and Pasta-Roni-free and Annie-free) for about 2 years. How did I kick the habit? By discovering some awesome pasta dishes that literally take as little time to prepare as those pasta packages but taste ten times better. My favorite one to turn to is still this linguine dish I learned from the lovely Giada De Laurentiis, back when I still watched Food Network. Cheesy, buttery, and peppery (both from the black pepper and arugula), pasta doesn’t get simpler or tastier than this.

With a grand total of six ingredients (three of which you should have already lying around your kitchen) and a preparation time clocking in at 10-15 min, you too can kick your instant pasta habit. The first step, of course, is to admit you have a problem in the first place.

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