pluot empanadas

The anonymity of blogging is something I simultaneously fear and embrace. On the one hand, I like that I can talk about my deepest, darkest secrets – e.g. recipes gone wrong, generally awkward behavior, my recent addiction to Crystal Light – without everyone knowing my name and where I live. I mean, okay, pretty much everyone in my immediate family reads this blog, but I don’t care if they know these things about me. It’s strangers I worry about – especially the kinds of strangers who know my everyday Clark Kent side, and want to hire me to write newspaper stories.

On the other hand, internet anonymity often translates into mean-spirited YouTube comments. If a genie gave me three wishes, one of them would be to automatically reveal the identities – including social security numbers – of every internet troll who ever existed. The other two involve the severe retroactive limitation of genocide and capitalist exploitation – but now I’m going to talk about cooking.

The person with whom I tested the following recipe also takes his internet anonymity very seriously, so I will henceforth refer to him as “VJ” to protect his identity. VJ, who actually invented this recipe in order to satisfy a fondness for pluots, is the author of Ducks & Turtles, one of my favorite Los Angeles food and recipe blogs. I was recently included in a Ducks & Turtles blog post on Umamicatessen, a restaurant with five kitchens that serves really, really non-kosher deli food, and is also delicious. Now I’m including VJ and his recipe, which turned out really well, on the secret menu. It seems only fair.

Even if I didn’t give credit to VJ for this recipe, many of my more frequent visitors would probably recognize that I had help. First of all, it took the better part of an afternoon to make this, and that is just not how I roll. Even if time and effort would improve a recipe, I am, as a general rule, not interested. Second, this recipe involves baking and, as I’ve said in previous posts, I am definitely no baker. In fact, if you want to destroy something – a building or, say, a relationship – just let me bake it for you, and it will be in the trash bin faster than you can say “stand mixer.”

Pluot Empanadas
(Makes 12)

Ingredients for the pastry:
-2 cups all-purpose flour, plus a little more for rolling it out
-1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
-1 teaspoon salt
-1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons shortening or vegetable oil
-Optional: one egg, beaten with a splash of milk (for an egg wash)

Ingredients for the filling:
-5 or 6 pluots
-1/2 red onion, diced
-1 cup brown sugar
-1 cup white sugar
-1/3 cup currants or raisins
-1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
-2 large garlic cloves, crushed
-3 tbs crystalized ginger, minced
-3/4 tsp cayenne
-1 star anise
-a few cloves
-1 cinnamon stick
-salt to taste
-1 tbs corn starch (to thicken)

First, prep the dough: mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together in the food processor and pulse together. Then, with the machine running, add the 1/2 cup shortening and pulse until loosely combined. Finally, add about 1/2 cup cold water bit by bit, with the machine running, just enough for the dough to form a ball. Knead by hand until smooth, which will take about a minute, and divide into 12 evenly-sized balls. Put in a container of some kind, cover, and let ’em refrigerate while you get cracking on the filling.

Now for the filling: chop, mince, and crush all the things that need chopping, mincing, and crushing. Toast the spices until fragrant in a pan, and then pulverize them in a spice grinder. Don’t even attempt this with a mortar and pestle, because you will have grandchildren before you get the cinnamon stick to break down. Anyway, now you’re ready for the important part. Bring the sugars and vinegar to a boil in a medium pot over medium heat. Stir in the raisins, onions, garlic, salt, ginger, and all the spices. Bring to a simmer, and then stir in the pluots. Reduce the heat and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until chutney is dark and thick. If you’re hardcore, you can do this for about 4 hours until it thickens naturally. If you’re impatient like us, you can let it simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour and then thicken it with a bit of corn starch. Be sure to let the filling cool before you attempt empanada creation.

Once the filling is room temperature, preheat the oven to 450ºF. On a well-floured surface, roll each ball of dough into a 5- or 6-inch round. Be careful, since this dough is dry and tends to fall apart. When it’s all rolled out, dab a little water around the perimeter and dollop a bit of filling in the center of each disk. Use your judgment – for you, a “spoonful” might be a tablespoon or a 1/4 cup. It depends entirely on how much of a perfectionist you are, how hungry you are, and how self-conscious you are about eating gooey foods.

Anyway, around now you should be folding your disk in half and pressing down on the edges to form a seal. If they’re already getting gooey, Ducks & Turtles recommends that you fold the edge inward a bit before pressing it down with a fork. The fork tines are how you get those nice, empanada-like impressions.

If any of the above confused you, watch this video:

PLUOT CHUTNEY EMPENADAS from James Mann on Vimeo.

Place the empanadas on an ungreased baking sheet and, if you are not concerned with the vegan-ness (veganity?) of this recipe, brush them lightly with an egg wash.

Bake them until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Serve immediately, and try not to burn your tongue.

kale and cherry salad with walnuts

Let’s pretend that I didn’t go on a three month hiatus to finish my dissertation/get a job/plan a wedding and get back to business, shall we? Good. Because I’m going to talk about a very important topic today: BALANCE. Some of you may remember this term from elementary school, when you learned that it is very difficult to balance on a soccer ball while wearing cotton socks. You may have only recently been re-exposed to the concept when someone – say, Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her recent article for the Atlantic – made mention of that old chestnut, “work-life balance,” which, as I think about it, is kind of a grown-up version of the soccer ball thing. All this is to say that balance has a habit of popping up in extremely annoying ways from time to time, and here it is again, in the form of what I would like to call “Food-Life balance.”

I probably don’t need to explain Food-Life balance to you. You know all about what happens when Life starts driving, pushing Food into the passenger seat and refusing to let it navigate. “Ooh! Mini soy ice cream sandwiches!” squeals Life, veering into the Fresh & Easy parking lot at 9:56 at night, and while Food would like to explain to Life that mini soy ice cream sandwiches are not an acceptable substitute for dinner, or even an acceptable way to keep one’s jaws busy for a minute and a half, Food tends to keep to itself when faced with Life’s bizarre demands and improbable logic. Under such circumstances, I’ve noticed, Food prefers to pull its fedora over its face and catch a snooze, thinking to itself, well, Life will probably come a-calling when it finally realizes why it can’t sleep, wake up, or get rid of that headache.

In April, when I let Life take over, I made a few notable sacrifices. The first was yoga, the second was Food, and the third was household cleanliness. All of these in tandem, as it turns out, add up to severely impaired health, not to mention a near total loss of sanity. And as I attempt to regain balance, I have found myself drawn to the extremes of the food pyramid: one day all I want is peanut butter and chocolate, while the next I’m jonesing for fresh vegetables and herbal tea. It’s a little like trying to balance on a soccer ball in stocking feet, overcompensating in one direction with the hips while the elbows jut back in the opposite direction – and all of this, as you might imagine, can only end in shoulder dislocation and wounded pride.

So, laying supine and feeling very much like a felled beast, I venture cautiously into balance:

Food, I don’t mean to bother you during your nap. I know I have neglected you for months and you probably don’t care to hear from me right now. But I feel awful. I have almost completely forgotten the best oven temperature for baked salmon, or how to preserve a yolk while cracking an egg. My friends don’t want to come over for dinner anymore. Help me, Food. Please help me be myself again.

And Food, peeking out from under its fedora, has one word for me: salad.

Kale and Cherry Salad with Walnuts
(Serves 2-3)

-2-3 cups of kale, chopped and washed thoroughly
-1/2 cup of cherries, pitted and quartered
-1/2 cup walnuts
-1/4 cup olive oil
-1 tablespoon of pomegranate molasses (agave syrup with a squeeze of lime juice also works)
-salt and pepper to taste

Put the kale in a large mixing bowl and pour in the olive oil. Make sure your hands are clean, because you are about to massage the leaves. Imagine the kale had a long day at work, and really get in there with your fingers. Press down hard, squeezing the kale firmly until it starts to soften – this takes about 3-5 minutes. When they’re ready, the leaves should only be slightly firmer than they are when they’re cooked.

Now add your pomegranate molasses, salt, and pepper. Mix well. Toss in the cherries and the walnuts and mix again. Behold a beautiful exercise in balance: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, rendered in a rainbow of colors. By the time you actually wolf this down – and you will – Food may even be climbing back into the driver’s seat, fully awake and ready to take you back to all your favorite spots, not to mention the ones you’ve been aching to visit for, well, about three months.

miso-glazed eggplant

We were a bit ambitious this evening at chez secret menu, taking our imitation of restaurant fare up a few notches with the addition of fermented soy product. As JM wisely observed, we consume a lot of fermented things: cheese, wine, beer, yogurt, and chocolate are all staples of our diet. So why not add miso? I mean, it can’t be that difficult to use, can it?

Now that I’ve done so, I’m going to go ahead and say that while cooking with miso is not all that tough, fitting into your jeans after eating foods prepared with it can be somewhat challenging. I am one of those people who swells up like a Grow-A-Monster after eating salty foods, adding inches to every bodily circumference. This has always been the case. Once, when I was seven, I put a pen cap on my pinky while I was eating crackers (I had to store it somewhere, right?) and my finger swelled up so much that the pen cap got stuck. It took two grown women in polyester tie-neck shirts and a great deal of upper body strength to remove that thing, and over twenty years for me to admit that any of it actually happened.

So, yeah, I don’t always do well with salt. I am quite fond of saltiness – both in flavor and in humor – but can’t fully rely on it for entertainment. Nonetheless, I decided to commit to it for an evening, and really took the bullet train to sodium town without bothering to secure my return ticket. And it was worth it, even if my rings are fitting a lot more snugly than usual.

Miso-Glazed Eggplant
(Serves 2-4)

*Disclaimer: If you want a more authentic recipe for Japanese miso-glazed eggplant, AKA nasu dengaku, go here, here, or here. I make no claims of anything but Having Fun In My Kitchen, and leave tradition to more qualified cooks.

-1 large eggplant, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
-4 tbs vegetable oil (I used olive)
-4 tbs miso paste
-2 tbs mirin
-1 tsp rice vinegar
-1 tsp agave nectar or brown sugar
-2 tbs water, sake, or white wine
-1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil
-1 small clove of garlic, crushed
-1 tbs toasted sesame seeds
-thinly sliced green onions or chives for garnish

Preheat the oven to 425 °F. While you wait for it to warm up, place the eggplant slices on a baking sheet or three (the eggplant I used was enormous – you may prefer to use the slimmer Japanese ones) and drizzle them with the vegetable oil. Don’t add salt. I know that sounds weird, but don’t. There is so much salt in the miso, you will shrivel up into a craisin if you add any more.

Now, in a small mixing bowl, spoon out your miso paste, mirin, vinegar, agave nectar, water (or sake or wine), sesame oil, and garlic. Mix ’em up until they resemble something that we will call a “glaze” – because “lumpy brown paste” won’t help your case once you actually sit down to eat it.

Set the glaze aside. Marvel at how the dog starts wagging her tail and pacing frantically around the kitchen. I suspect this is because miso has a very strong smell that is lost on humans, but reminds dogs of small woodland creatures (or possibly large ones). To try and understand why my dog was reacting like I had just let Our Neighbor Totoro amble into the house, I put my face in really close and took a deep whiff of the glaze. It smelled like my garden – if I had watered it with soy sauce. Not entirely a bad smell, and not entirely an unfunny mental image.

Anyway, back to cooking: put the eggplant rounds in the oven and let them cook for a good 10-15 minutes until they brown up nicely. Flip them over, and give them another 10 minutes or so to roast on the other side. Switch the oven to broil to get an even deeper tan hue on those babies. Don’t be too proud, because you’re going to smear glaze all over them, thus obscuring your oven mastery.

Once they’ve been glazed, sprinkle your eggplant discs with sesame seeds and a little greenery. Green onions work best, but I didn’t have any. Forgetting ingredients is my wabi-sabi. I used chives from the yard instead. They look nice, yeah?

steak and cheese salad

Being, um, between jobs while living on the residential outskirts of a major metropolis has a few drawbacks. One of them comes in the shape of a lovely little restaurant and market, situated within walking distance of my house. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, hey, wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like a drawback! That actually sounds kind of nice!

But you didn’t let me finish, did you? Did you know that, every day, this restaurant has seasonal specials that they write on an adorable little chalkboard? Delightful things, like “kumquat and beet compote” and “broad bean slaw” and other stuff I don’t understand and can’t even begin to picture (though I know they will taste amazing)? And it doesn’t even end there! They have a glass-front fridge dedicated to local cheese and pickles! Cheese that came from the daily dairy output of fuzzy, friendly little goats that live not 200 miles from here!

Still not following? Okay, give me $40 and I’ll tell you. And no, that’s just for YOU – your kids will be $20 more. Each.

Damn you, lovely little overpriced farm-to-table-organic-local-seasonal-specials-on-the-chalkboard-handsome-waiting-staff-cheese-&-pickle-fridge-fresh-pastries-walking-distance-from-my-house restaurant! You so richly deserve my hard-earned money, but I cannot afford to give it to you at every meal! I know I should buy local and eat seasonal and give ample tips to the apron-wearing twentysomethings who make those things possible, but seriously. $10 for a small jar of pickles? Seriously??

With our neighborhoods increasingly overrun with alluring establishments that are rooted in age-old farming practices and nonexistent economic structures, what are regular people to do? My home cooking skills are being shown up by these folks every day, only blocks from my home. There has to be something I can do to keep up, right?

Indeed: I can steal their ideas. My favorite dish at the aforementioned restaurant is their steak salad, and I can totally make that at home.

All this dish requires is a smidge of ethically-raised beef and organically-grown arugula, a few organic cherry tomatoes thrown in for good measure, and a bit of lovingly-fermented dairy product. Oh yeah, and lots of garlic – that’s key. All of these things put together will run you about $20, and will feed you for days. And you’ll have your own little fridge-to-table-mostly-organic-handsome-cooking-staff-never-even-left-your-house private, invite-only dining establishment, and who will be laughing then? Your restaurant is so velvet-rope, no one has even heard of it.

Garlicky Steak ‘n’ Cheese Salad
Serves one hungry restaurant-goer

-1 top sirloin or other thick cut of steak
-1-2 oz. blue cheese or cheddar (depending on your mood), crumbled or coarsely grated
-a handful of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
-2 cups of arugula
-3 tbs of olive oil
-1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
-1 clove of garlic, minced
-salt and black pepper

Preheat your oven to 375°F, and set an oven-safe pan over a medium flame. When the pan’s hot, add a tablespoon of the olive oil. Season your steak with salt and pepper, and lay it in the center of the pan. It should sizzle immediately. After browning the steak on both sides (about 2 minutes per side), put the pan in the oven and cook it until the juices start to run (about 2-10 more minutes, depending on how well-done you want your steak to be and how thick the cut is). Remove the steak from the oven, and place it on a cutting board.

All right, act two: put your remaining olive oil in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add the balsamic vinegar, a little salt and pepper, and the crushed/minced garlic clove. Close the jar and shake. Boom. Drizzle this concoction over the arugula leaves and toss to coat.

Finally – assembly time! Lay down the dressed greens, and top with the tomatoes. Return your attention to the steak. It should be a bit cooler, and you can slice it diagonally to create a little horizontal stack. Place this stack on top of your salad, and sprinkle cheese over the top. Add a generous crack or two of pepper to add that extra zing.

The nice thing about this salad is that it takes very kindly to things like walnuts and cucumbers and citrus. I didn’t have any of those things when I decided to make my meal, but you can think ahead and plan accordingly. My home restaurant is really a let’s-use-what’s-in-the-fridge kind of place – in the same way that my blog is a hyphenate-things-for-comic-purposes kind of chronicle. It may not be as good as the joint down the block, but calling the shots is often worth its weight in goat cheese ($18.99 a pound?!?…).

roasted chickpeas

“Did we ever post about roasted chickpeas?”

“I don’t know.”

What WordPress failed to tell me when I signed up for this blog is that consistent posting over long stretches of time can lead to a sort of hallucinatory state, whereby you can no longer tell the difference between blog life and real life. It’s a little like when you can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality – but worse, because blogs are indexed and there is nothing stopping me from just looking it up, except I’m lazy and would rather repeat myself, and I think I just discovered something about the aging process.

In any event, if we did write about these chickpeas before, it’s worth writing about them again. Sprinter – half-spring, half-winter – is a fickle time of year, and requires recipes that can double as comfort food and snacky, standing-outside-in-your-pajamas food. Roasted chickpeas definitely fit the bill. If your sprinter is feeling a bit nippy, add some extra garlic and a smattering of paprika. If it’s on the warmer side, don’t be shy with the lemon juice. Chickpeas are also neat because (and I’m pretty sure I have said this before), as my high school Latin teacher told me, Cicero means chickpea in Latin. That kind of takes Mr. De Legibus down a notch, doesn’t it? Lorem ipsum…right into my belly!

Roasted Chickpeas
Serves 1/2 a person. Maybe 1 if you’re generous.

-1 can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained well
-2-3 tbs olive oil
-1 clove of garlic, crushed
-sea salt
-lemon juice and/or paprika to taste (optional)

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Dry the chickpeas with a paper towel, and toss them with the oil in a roasting pan. Add the salt and crushed garlic, and hold your horses while the oven finished preheating. Alternatively, you could just play a game of solitaire or Words With Friends while you wait for the oven to preheat, and then do everything I just listed above. Either way, get those little ciceros in the oven and let them roast for about 30 minutes, stirring them around once or twice to make sure they brown evenly.

When they’re done, sprinkle them with a tablespoon or two of lemon juice, and add a little paprika for heat if sprinter’s getting you down. Toss well, and devour.

roasted baby eggplant with strained yogurt and mint

So you know when you’re transferring photos off a memory card that you haven’t used in a while, and you find a bunch of pictures that you completely forgot about? For most folks, I imagine this involves pictures of the really adorable but much-too-young person you had a fling with a few months ago (whoops), or a series of your own fine self draping your arms around the shoulders of people at a party that you only have hazy memories of attending (triple whoops), or maybe a really cute photo of your friend’s kid that you said you would TOTALLY send, like, tomorrow, but never actually did (whoopsy daisy), or possibly even several out-of-focus photos of a red spot on your lip that you thought might be a cold sore but wanted to send to your uncle who’s a doctor just to confirm (it’s a pimple).

In my case, I often find pictures of food that I completely forgot about cooking — this, when I’m often convinced that I haven’t cooked anything in weeks and therefore have nothing to post about. When I was downloading pictures yesterday for the sautéed shrimp recipe, I noticed that, gee, I had actually made quite a few things since January and taken quite a lot of not-so-great pictures of them. No matter. One of my unofficial new year’s “resolutions,” if they can be called that, is to put the mediocre things I make and do out into the world — even if they are really embarrassing (more on this another day). Next year’s quasi-resolution will be to do that without apologies but, in the meantime, I am truly sorry for not giving my outdoor table even a cursory wipe before taking these pictures. Alas, my secret menu muse strikes like a toddler having a temper tantrum: take a picture IMMEDIATELY and NO you may NOT wipe off the table or find a nicer dish in the garage because you need to EAT RIGHT NOW!!!!

Luckily, these eggplants are delicious. The trick with eggplant, as I’ve figured out through trial and error, is to cook it quite a bit longer than you think you need to. Squishy eggplants shall inherit the earth; chewy ones will make your tongue sting and your throat itch. So, yeah, you will need to set aside about an hour for the following recipe, but I promise it’s worth it.

Roasted Baby Eggplants with Yogurt and Mint
Serves 2

-4-6 baby eggplants (Indian or Japanese)
-2-3 tbs olive oil
-3-4 peeled garlic cloves, halved
-a few shakes of kosher salt
-4-6 tbs strained yogurt (lebni or full-fat Greek yogurt both work nicely)
-4-6 walnut halves, chopped (optional)
-1 tsp dried mint leaves, crushed

Preheat your oven to 450°F. Trim the eggplant stems to under 1 inch, peel the green leaves surrounding the caps, and use a fork to poke a few holes in each eggplant. Toss the eggplants and the halved garlic cloves with olive oil and a little kosher salt, and place them in a deep iron skillet or other oven-safe pan.

Roast the eggplants for about 40 minutes, until they’re very soft. You can cover them with foil if you’re worried about them losing moisture, but if you use enough oil this won’t really be a problem.

When the eggplants are done, remove them from the oven and let them cool for 5-10 minutes. Once they’ve cooled, slice each eggplant open on top and fill with a dollop of the strained yogurt. Sprinkle with dried mint and serve immediately (or, as my kitchen muse says: RIGHT NOW DO IT RIGHT NOW!!!).

For an extra bit of oomph: mix some chopped walnuts into the yogurt before you dollop.

perfect sautéed shrimp

I’m the first to admit that this is a less-than-perfect cooking blog. I use a free WordPress theme that is probably better suited to a political journal that, after being updated almost every day for three months, mysteriously stops in its tracks circa November 2010. My recipes are often poor imitations of 3.5-star recipes I find on the Sunset Magazine website or in back issues of Bon Appétit that I read in the bathroom. When the photographs (by JM) are good, I make them too small; when they’re less than stellar (by me), I attempt to compensate through color correction that might be more at home in a Gaspar Noë film than a food diary. Finally, I am really, really bad about updating and, worse, could and would give you a litany of bad excuses for it if you dared to inquire.

Dear long-suffering reader: thank you for putting up with all that. Truly. You deserve some form of recognition for sticking it out through my foibles as I figure out this whole recipe blog thing. And since I can’t afford to get you a medal for your efforts (I’ve looked into it — gold-plating, as it turns out, costs a fortune), I thought I’d give you what you’ve been looking for all along: a really, really awesome recipe that, with it’s perfection, might undo some of the systemic imperfections of the secret menu saga.

This shrimp recipe is courtesy of Cook’s Illustrated, for which my parents — bless their hearts — gave me a gift subscription over the holidays. I am used to reading Cook’s Illustrated in their bathroom, which is adjacent to the kitchen and, therefore, the site of many a food-related eureka moment — and, no, that is not a poop joke, but I guess it’s sort of too late for denial (yet another reason this blog is imperfect: I use the word “poop” in close proximity to cooking instructions, which probably means I’m on some kind of FDA most-wanted list). Suffice it to say, I have learned a lot from that little magazine. They test the heck out of everything they write up, and explain basic cooking techniques so clearly that they are pretty much impossible to mess up.

As I have learned, the secret to cooking perfect shrimp is like the secret to doing a good job with your makeup: do not overdo it, lest you end up with a lot of wrinkly, multicolored bits of flesh staring you in the face. Cook’s Illustrated had a public service announcement to this effect in one of its recent issues, listing three or four different ways not to screw the pooch when you’re cooking shrimp. Grilling, frying, sautéing, and one other thing that I forget because I fell into deep and profound love with their sautéing instructions, made it into that list. Below is a fairly faithful adaptation of the shrimp sautée, adjusted for inflation (I used enormous shrimp) and garlic butter (because it’s my attorney and close family friend).

(Perfect) Sautéed Shrimp With Garlic Butter
Serves 2

-1 large pan with a lid
-2 tablespoons of butter, softened
-2 cloves of garlic, crushed
-1 pound of gargantuan shrimp, peeled and deveined
-1/4 teaspoon of sugar
-1/2 teaspoon of salt
-1 tablespoon of olive oil
-juice from 1/2 a lemon

Once the butter is soft, mix in the crushed garlic (and a tablespoon of fresh herbs, if you’d like) and set aside in your serving bowl.

Put the cleaned shrimp in a plastic bag or container and sprinkle the sugar and salt over them. Stir to combine.

Now put the pan over medium heat and warm the olive oil. When it’s sizzlin’, add the shrimp in a single layer, and let them cook until they are pink around the edges. Flip them one by one, cover the pan tightly, and turn off the heat. Wait 90 seconds.

Check the shrimp. If they are bright pink on both sides, they’re done. Now add the shrimp to your serving bowl, squeeze in the lemon juice, and toss with the butter until evenly coated. Serve immediately, since these puppies get cold fast. And no need to thank me — the fact that you actually made it to the end of this post is thanks enough.