Monthly Archives: November 2006

from summer to autumn: provencal tomato soup with rice

tomato provencal soup with rice, originally uploaded by c(h)ristine.

I went to watch “Stranger than Fiction” today (which incidentally is a wonderful movie, especially poignant for fiction writers). The connection with this movie to tomato provencal soup? The movie theater was across the street from a Sunday farmer’s market.

Though I love farmer’s markets, and find them incredibly invigorating and fun, I’m often too lazy to coordinate my schedule and get myself over to a bounty-of-local-harvest-that-is-only-available-for-a-few-hours-once-a-week. I know. Horrible. I kick myself every week as I browse through second tier fruit and veg at a chain grocery store during my odd night hour shopping expeditions. Even my local favorite, Berkeley Bowl, cannot keep up with produce a mere few hours off the farm. But–I am not so lazy that when a farmer’s market is across the street from I’m supposed to be that I will not go visit! So off to the farmer’s market I went.

Visits to the farmer’s market bring me a weird inner peace and inspiration. How can I feel that way about produce? But I do. For me, I have similar experiences staring at art pieces in a museum. Maybe it’s not so big a leap: after all, these are all creations.

Just look at these green onions:

farmer's market: beautiful green onions

How beautiful are they? How the purple and green interplay? How there is such a perfect and striking balance? Could I write a story so natural and brilliant?

Or take a look at these tomatoes:

farmer's market:  last tomatoes of the season

They’re the last tomatoes of the season–all over the market were signs that declared, “Last week for grapes” and “Last Early Girl Tomatoes.” Immediately, before they had even disappeared, I became nostalgic! I missed them already!

I stood, in the middle of the market, arms weighed down with yams, tangerines, mushrooms, and one huge brussel sprout stalk, feeling kind of sad and also inspired and also peaceful and happy. There were fewer stalls than I’d been last, in the height of summer, and there was a sort of empty feeling. Then again, it’s autumn, my favorite season, and I delighted in this very natural transition.

How to deal with these mixed feelings? I stared at the tomatoes. How could I not have the “last Early Girl tomatoes” of the season? They felt more special somehow. I gathered a couple pounds of them, feeling their soft smooth skins in my hands; they were tender to the touch. So fragile, and vulnerable these last tomatoes were!

What could I make with these tomatoes? I thought of Sam at Becks & Posh who herself bought a 20 lb box and made sauce reserves of the last tomatoes, so precious are the taste of summer tomatoes. I felt ambivalent and yet whimsical: Summer, Autumn. Tomatoes…and soup. I decided that these tomatoes were enough to make a soup to pay homage to both summer and autumn.

No normal soup would do, either. It could not be an “average tomato soup.” So I decided to make a provencal tomato soup with rice. I am a fan of this particular recipe for the balance between decadent saffron and irreverent red-pepper. It makes me think of the French countryside with a bit of a kick. What a way to celebrate the last tomatoes of the season.

Recipe follows after the jump…

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Friday Five

Food based Friday Five!

1. Given a choice, and imagining that money and time were no object, would you rather cook dinner, eat out or order in?

Depends on my mood. I go through spells of eating out a lot, and after a while, I just want to eat something simple, like a fried egg with a bowl of rice and soy sauce. And takeout is nice if I’ve been really busy, I’m tired and I don’t feel like interacting with other humans.

2. What is the most elaborate meal you’ve ever prepared yourself or purchased at a restaurant?

I’ve prepared many multicourse meals at my friend Justin’s house, but I can’t remember them all now. I know that out of the French Laundry cookbook, we made butter poached lobster and lobster bisque. When Anne and I were practicing for an Iron Chef contest, we made something like 12 dishes for our guinea pigs… savory egg custards in their own shell with morel ragout (also out of French Laundry), pasta carbonara, strawberry pavlova with mascarpone sorbet, white and yellow nectarine and prosciutto salad, duck sausage with dried nectarines, nectarine and cardamon rice, nectarine chutney, nectarine ice cream, corn risotto, polenta cookies, corn ice cream (yech)… My own kitchen is tiny, so I don’t often prepare multicourse meals for guests. If I do, I stick to uncomplicated dishes so I can entertain. A common dinner party menu would be something like oysters on the half shell, cold vichysoisse, a tossed salad, seared duck breast (the only thing that’s not prepared ahead of time), lentils, a cheese plate and some kind of tart with homemade ice cream. If I do make something more complicated, it’s labeled as a “project” that produces excess product to share or eat later on, like cassoulet, braised oxtails, fresh pasta, puff pastry, macarons, etc. But the most complicated meal I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant is probably Pierre Gagnaire. Dude had some pretty bizarre stuff!

3. What food do you find yourself making and/or eating way too much?

I actually *like* repeating recipes over and over, and making subtle adjustments each time. After a while, the recipe become my own. But I probably eat too much chocolate and pastries.

4. What was your most disastrous cooking/eating out experience? The molten sugar incident.

5. Would you rather cook for someone else or have them cook for you? I’d rather cook for someone else. It’s pretty difficult for me to go into someone else’s kitchen while food is being prepared and resist meddling. Also, I’m just a control freak in the kitchen. It gets pretty obnoxious – “Ack! The mirepoix should be diced smaller! Those cookies need to be spaced evenly apart! What do you mean, you don’t have a microplane zester! Don’t you know that chervil is integral to fines herbes? We can’t use extra virgin olive oil to saute! “

uber chocolate chunk cookies

chocolate chunk cookies

This was a post I put up on my personal blog right before Muffin Top started up. I thought I would re-post it here, since I’d like to share it with Muffin Top readers. Also, I’d like to start consolidating my favorite recipes in one place, so I don’t have to hunt for them in two different places!

What I love about this recipe is that it is so decadent: big chunks of artisanal chocolate beat little chocolate chips anyday! Although, yes, you can use chips in this recipe too. I also love this recipe because the chips are a bit cakier than the very popular Nestle Tollhouse cookie recipe. I am not a fan of the Nestle Tollhouse cookie recipe–it produces cookies that are just a bit too “mushy,” sweet, and flat for me. So this is a great alternative recipe for those of you in the same boat!

In fact, the reason I looked up this recipe is that I plan on making some today.

So without further ado…

i’m trying to clear out my kitchen before i leave town–going to avoid the “what the heck is this stuff you left me to eat?” situation. there’s a ton of stuff i eat that my husband does not…like tofu for instance, and chocolate. i’ve discovered tons of chocolate stashes throughout the kitchen. wherever you can hide some chocolate, i’ve done it! squares of valrhona jivara lactee behind the teas, a half pound block of el rey bittersweet 70% behind the pasta, another block of callebaut bittersweet 68% by the sugar and salt, and a quarter pound of valrhona jivara lactee (how could i have overlooked THAT?!) behind the canned food.


i know i have a habit of impulse buying when it comes to gourmet chocolate…but boy, i didn’t realize i was so wasteful…or rather such a chocolate hoarder. i remind myself of those cartoons with the dog that keeps hiding his bones all around the yard and lawn!

anyway–i couldn’t let that chocolate go to waste. and i felt a need to round them all up and start afresh with the hoarding when i get back in a few weeks. i wasn’t in a brownie or chocolate cake mood, i wanted a simpler dessert.

chocolate chunk cookies!

so i went to work. i chopped up the chocolate into big chunks (some as large as 1″ inch, most of them about 1/2″ chunks). a lovely mess!

and then i used my favorite chocolate chip recipe (substituting the chunks for the chips). a GREAT result. (i don’t know about you, but i think that although the nestle tollhouse chocolate chip cookie is decent, it’s overrated. too chewy, overly sweet, and flat–literally, the cookies from that recipe are FLAT). i took the bulk of these cookies to the office, where they were devoured. the bigger chunks are wonderful in the cookies and the chocolate holds their shape, making for some wonderful gooey chocolate pockets.

Recipe follows after the jump….

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hummus and pita

This is one of my husband’s great comfort foods–he’ll happily scoop this dip up with extra thick pita, possibly triggering all sorts of childhood memories. When I married my husband, one of the first things I did was go up to his mother and ask her for the recipes of all his favorite foods. She happily obliged and started off by teaching me how to make hummus, something she learned from HER mother-in-law. It trips me out to think that this family recipe passed from its Jewish Iraqi roots to my Ashkenazi Jewish mother in law, to Korean American me. I’m honored.
This is “the real stuff,” as I know it, and as I have been taught. No adulterations: no black bean hummus or artichoke hummus or black eyed pea hummus or habanero hummus. I’ve made some changes over the years: I’ve increased the lemon and the cumin, and upped the garlic. But the main ingredients that make up a classic hummus are all there.

I’ve come to love this snack (I have always liked it, but now I too find it a happy snack, especially when paired with chicken schnitzel). And I’ve even learned to say it correctly: it’s hummus, with a gutteral “ch” and a “u” like “ooo.” “chooomooos.”

Recipe follows after the jump:

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A foodie’s guilty secrets

We all have ’em. C’mon. What are yours? Here’s mine:

1. I like easy cheese. The extra sharp cheddar flavor. Although I haven’t purchased a can for some time, I’ll actually squirt some on my fingers and lick it off.

2. The reason why I haven’t purchased a can of Easy Cheese is because I discovered a slightly more refined alternative: Kaukauna cheese spread. Port Wine flavor. I usually buy the kind that comes in a tub. Though I actually like the nut-covered balls and logs more, the tub keeps better.

3. I can’t deep fry. I never get the temperature right, I wind up making a huge mess in the kitchen, I don’t like the idea of keeping used oil around and the hot oil terrifies me. (the molten sugar incident didn’t help)

4. I’ve never made my own bread. I’ve made my own pizza dough, I’ve made my own pasta dough and I consider myself somewhat of an expert on pastry doughs (puff pastry, pie crust, cream puffs, etc.), but I haven’t made any other yeasted doughs.

5. I use (gasp) canned soup stock. Sure, if I roasted a chicken or if I have a bunch of veggie trimmings, I’ll make it, but since I’m only cooking for two and I work full time, I don’t have enough time or chicken carcasses lying around to make it constantly.

Cooking at Hyperspeed

img_2957.JPGComing up with interesting, healthy, not-time consuming meals for five people, six or so days a week is the bane of a cooking parent’s existence. I really like to cook, but the high-stress conditions I cook under would make a great Top Chef challenge. But it’s hard to come up with an idea that will please everyone in our household – we have several pickyish eaters whose pickyness does not coincide with others’ pickyness, so the Venn Diagram (remember those?) that represents the area of Mutually Acceptable Food is actually quite narrow.

So there’s the thinking time. There’s the finding recipes, or relying on the very small repertoire of dishes that have been committed to memory. Then there’s the figuring out if you have the appropriate stuff in your kitchen to make the recipe. Then there’s the shopping, because inevitably you don’t have the appropriate stuff. That breaks down into driving, parking, shopping, driving home, hauling the stuff out of the car and putting it away. Then there’s the actual cooking, which involves chopping, slicing, dicing and measuring. This also involves locating the various measuring utensils which always seem to migrate to yet another random drawer. Why can I always find the 1/3 cup measure, but never the 1/2 cup? Then there’s the dreaded cleanup.

So along comes an enterprise like Full Plate, which claims to remove the stress out of making dinner! I was all over it. I’d tried a place like this last year, which was an ecstatic experience fomom.jpgr me but less so for my family. The first round of recipes were deemed “very good” and the second round was way too sophisticated (mushroom risotto, various other vegie delights) for them. They asked me to never try pulling anything like this again.

But this new place just opened up a mile from my house. Right next to my bank and my pet-food store. How could I resist? I could not. So this morning I put my mother in the van, along with a huge plastic tub with which to haul home our bounty, and off we went.

The place is immaculate. And very pleasant. They have snacks of their latest goodies (Shanghai Meatballs with Dipping Sauce, which were intensely addictive) along with water and sparkling cider. They gave us nice white aprons, a list of our pre-ordered meals, and we set off to make 9 meals in one hour.

It’s really cool. Each “station” is set up for a different dish. There are boxes of big gallon Ziploc bags, and all the ingredients you need, and clearly marked instructions. We started with Beef Wellington, a dish I would not attempt on my own. We mixed up a bunch of herbs and butter and mushrooms, and placed them on some nice big sheets of puff pastry. Added filet mignon (!) and wrapped up, using beaten egg. Everything is there for you. If it says 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, there is a lovely little 1/4 teaspoon sitting IN the black pepper dispenser. If you need a cup of mushrooms, there is a one cup measure sitting in the lovely pre-sliced mushrooms. It’s heaven. There are endless supplies of mixing bowls and measuring things and spatulas and spoons and baggies. When you finish up, and slap a big sticker with cooking instructions on the final baggie, you leave that station and the FullPlate fairies come along and clean up after you. Whoo-Wheee!!

My mom seemed to enjoy herself. I read the recipes, and together we measured and stirred and combined and put stuff in plastic gallon bags. Then she put each finished baggie into our own shelf in the communal refrigerator. We had our rythmn down. We made Chicken Marsala, Coconut Shrimp, Chicken Satay, Asian Marinated Steak and Sesame Crusted Salmon. Then I had to buy a premade baggie of the Shanghai Meatballs because they were SO addictive.

I was positively giddy at finding the little bins of prechopped veggies, the beautifully marked ingredients, and the whisking away of anything that we used, within seconds. It took a little over an hour, and we had nine full meals. I threw in some redskinned mashed potatoes and sweet-potato fries as side dishes.
shrimp.jpg We came home. What to make? What to freeze? We decided we’d try the Coconut Shrimp with Tamarind Dipping Sauce. I followed the directions on the bag and it was easy-peasy.
The verdict: Four thumbs up out of five. The youngest persnickety eater did not like the coconut texture of the breading, nor the dipping sauce. She opted to make her own Popcorn Shrimp.

I’d say that’s not so bad.

Check out counter: miscellaneous impulse buys

an alternative to M&Ms: chocolate covered sunflower seeds, originally uploaded by c(h)ristine.


I have had my fair share of impulse purchases, especially when it comes to food items. (“What…is THAT?!”–and off it goes into my cart). This has led to some wonderful discoveries: harissa, many different chocolates and cheeses, and orange blossom water come to mind. I’m sure there are more but they have become so much a part of my pantry that I’ve forgotten when they were incorporated into my staples.

One item I discovered this week was chocolate candy covered sunflower seeds at Trader Joe’s:

chocolate covered sunflower seeds

These candies are a combination of the familiar and the new. Kind of like M&Ms except that instead of peanuts, you are eating sunflower seeds! The taste of sunflower seeds are so distinct and different from peanuts but very yummy. And the small size of these candies are so charming! You’re eating them by the handful instead of one by one.

Hrm. I just got an idea: maybe they would go well in cookies? I’ll have to try that out.

But then there are the impulse buys that I would rather forget. Like this package of dried dragon fruit:

dried dragon fruit

Not yummy. Tastes like paper with only the faintest hint of how delicious this fruit really is when uh…fully hydrated. As Melanie, one of our fellow food bloggers on Muffin Top remarked after peering at it (and witnessing my grimacing face), “Some things aren’t meant to be dried.” You said it, sister!

dragonfruit cross section

See how much more appealing this fruit is when fresh? It tastes like kiwi and the seeds provide an intriguing texture (like kiwi). Seeing as how rare dragon fruit is in the United States, I was hoping to capture some of that yumminess in dried fruit form. No dice.

Then…there is just the really perplexing:

why does japanese curry have cheese and peanut butter in it?

I bought this package of “House Vermont Curry,” a variation on Japanese curry because its tagline is “with a touch of apple and honey.” Hey, I am known to put a handful of sugar into stews and curries, so the apple and honey did not seem odd to me at all; in fact, it was attractive to me. And the did not taste odd either. It was just fine.

But then I looked at the ingredients list while waiting for the curry to simmer. Turmeric, oil, sugar, salt…fruit paste (okay, yah apple and honey)…CHEESE (?!)….PEANUT BUTTER (?!!?)

Um. Why does Japanese curry have cheese and peanut butter in it?