Zuni Cafe Caesar Salad

About two years ago, one of my favorite food writers Michael Ruhlman wrote a very entertaining rant on Chicken Caesar Salads… which led him to introduce the Chicken Fried Pork Belly Caesar… which then led him to challenge Chris Cosentino, chef of Incanto here in SF, to put the dish on the Incanto menu … which actually led to the development of an even more ridiculous version (as in ridiculously awesome) of the Caesar Salad by Chris Cosentino himself. If you haven’t seen it before, I suggest checking out this series of posts – if you’re not drooling by the end, then I regret to inform you that you must be a robot.

I will tell you right now that I’m not trying to one-up either of those guys by topping the salad with something even more ridiculous (fried bone marrow? Is that even possible??). But I will tell you about a basic Caesar Salad recipe so amazingly good that also happens to be amazingly simple and requires no frying of any kind. Don’t get me wrong, I love pork bellies and pretty much all things Chris Cosentino cooks (seriosuly, Nathan and I went to his restaurant three times in the span of six months). But thanks to Judy Rodgers and her Zuni Cafe cookbook, here’s a Caesar Salad so delicious and flavorful that you won’t even need to think about garnishing it with crazy proteins.

(Note that the dressing here uses raw eggs, so depending on your personal feelings on raw egg consumption, you may want to use pasteurized eggs. In full disclosure, I have not tried this dressing with pastuerized eggs, so if you do, please leave a comment and let me know if it works out!)

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Asparagus Bread Pudding

As you can probably tell by the infrequent posting, life has been a bit hectic lately and I’ve been having trouble finding the time to share my cooking adventures with you. What with a wedding to plan and grad school work ramping up, I haven’t been attempting many ambitious cooking projects at home. (Case in point: you should see my poor sourdough starter, which has been sadly sitting in the fridge unused for a couple of months now when I’m sure all he wants to do is come out and play. Hopefully, I won’t have to keep him pent up much longer.)

Of course, all of this doesn’t mean I haven’t been cooking – it’s just the focus lately has been on simple, easy, super quick meals. After much internal debate, I’ve finally decided that I would write about these anyway and hope that one day, it’ll help someone (possibly even me, since I have the worst memory in the universe) whip out a quick dinner without running to the store. So you’ll start seeing posts about these improvised “recipes” soon – although I hesitate to even call them recipes since I’m never that careful with measuring things when I’m improvising.

But before I start busting out the improv (ha), I want to encourage all of you to try this awesome recipe from none other than Heidi at 101 Cookbooks, one of my all-time favorite recipe blogs. Take advantage of those gorgeous asparagus before they go completely out of season!

Of course, you can replace the asparagus and mushrooms with any other vegetables your heart/stomach desires that day. In fact, I’m day-dreaming about how mighty fine a bread pudding like this would be with some wilted leafy greens, capers, fresh tarragon, and maybe even some roasted fennel. Why, what a lucky coincidence – I have those exact veggies sitting in the fridge at home!

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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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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There are two benefits to getting a sourdough starter going. One: you have a working starter and can bake yummy breads when you like. Two: you can stop talking about the starter all the time. OK, so I cannot guarantee that I won’t post about making bread with the starter again, but hopefully, you’ve seen the last of foamy, frothy starter pictures. And I know at least one of you is happy to hear that!

I’ve been looking around for a good mac and cheese recipe for a while and have even attempted a few. So far, I would say that this recipe, adapted from one by the always-trusty Ina Garten, is the best I’ve tried and will probably be the basis of all my future mac and cheese endeavors. It’s got an excellent bechamel sauce, a decent sauce-to-pasta ratio, and a really crunchy breadcrumb topping.

Of course, since mac and cheese is so conducive to variations, I have no intention of making the exact same recipe twice. This time around, I omitted the bacon in the original recipe for the sake of eating less meat, but next time around, I might not be as disciplined. A couple handfuls of peppery arugula would be excellent here too, as would green peas, wild mushrooms, corn, etc etc. The list just goes on.

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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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