Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wanderings - Cooking For Solutions, Monterey Bay Aquarium Pt. 1

Cooking for Solutions is an event hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA for a number of years (13!). It is such a shame that I didn't know of its existence for so long! I was at a wine symposium for work last year and in one of the stations I happened to be wine tasting at, my eyes fell upon this little booklet that read "Cooking for Solutions" now anything that has the words: cook, food, eat, or closely related, you've got my attention! So I picked it up and shoved it into my bag of goodies and moved on. When I got home, I flipped through the booklet and realized "oh my goodness, is there anything more magical??" 

So what am I talking about?? What is all this random jibber jabber? Well let me tell you, if you haven't heard of Cooking for Solutions and to anyone that LOVES food (like me!) you've been missing out! If you get an opportunity, you need to go check this thing out!

 A bit of background: Cooking for Solutions is an annual event designed to celebrate sustainable cuisines (Seafood Watch is one of the their main programs), held every year over a span of 3 days in May. During this event celebrity, local, and notably chefs from all over the country come and join in all the fun teaching us ways to fine dine while keeping our planet healthy! These 3 days are filled with numerous events such as night Galas, small-group Food & Wine Adventures, Salon Series, DIYs, and Sustainable Foods Celebration at the aquarium. There is a piece of something for everyone. Of course some of these events have additional costs to them but they all go to a good cause and they're all tax deductible to various degrees. The prices will range from $200+/- down to about $50+/- depending on the event you want to attend. If you're an aquarium member then there is a discount on event pricing. No worries though, if all of that sounds too pricy, the Sustainable Foods Celebration at the aquarium is included with museum admission and there is plenty to see and do with that alone which is what I did this year.

I missed out on last year's event, mainly because I was too much of a big baby and "oh I don't want to go by myself" because it would seem that I'm the only food nut within my group of friends (yes, so lame! Luckily they all still have wonderful other qualities that I will overlook this horrid lack of interest in something so awesome!) but this year, this year is different. Why? Because I found out Alton Brown was going to be there! Yes, you read correctly, Alton Brown! One of my favorite celebrity chefs of all time was going to be there! This year I didn't care if I was by myself or if I went with a ghost, I was going to be there! I did have a moment of relapse when no one responded to my "who wants to come with me!?" but in the end I decided I had to be there. I found out Alton was going to be at the Sustainable Food Celebration event and decided to just go to that, plus I had purchased a year's membership so that was technically already paid for. Side note: I highly recommend the annual membership ($75) just for this event alone because the Sustainable Food Celebration is on both Saturday and Sunday with different chefs each day. Admissions is $40, twice is $80 or a year membership of $75 for unlimited visits. Oh and 100% tax deductible! Just a thought.

I had no idea what I was in for. The museum opened at 10am and from my last visit to the museum, I had problems finding parking AND ended up paying $20! So this time around, I figured with an event like this, I should probably try to beat the crowds a little bit and get there about 9/9:30am so I'd have a fighting chance to find a place to park. Unfortunately I still had to fork over $15 for parking but this was a much better spot as it was right across from the museum. With membership this time, I also got to go to the express line! Turns out as it gets closer to opening time even the express line gets long. No fear, like a crazy fan, I was the 3rd person in line. While waiting in line, I was given a schedule for the day and with a quick glance I soon realized how exciting this day was going to be. 

The chefs who were present that day, Alton Brown (Good Eats, Iron Chef America, Cutthroat Kitchen, author), Alexander Weiss (Master Chef Junior winner < who's season I just so happened to watch!), Todd Fisher (Local Chef: Pebble Beach resorts/Monterey) and local Whole Foods chefs were all listed for cooking demonstrations at various times during the day. Alton Brown had a book signing. Local small food businesses had stations all around the outside deck area for people to learn about their products and to try their foods. Inside the museum there were a number of other stations promoting ways to be more sustainable when it comes to food/seafood. From human foods to cat food to plants, there were so much! Of course, first things first, meeting Alton Brown (!), who happened to be the first chef cooking at 11am. Needless to say, like a crazy nut, I spent my first hour sitting in the front row of where his demonstration was going to take place to ensure I got a good spot. 

It was absolutely gorgeous in Monterey that day, just gorgeous. Anyone who's been to Monterey knows that the weather there can be hit and miss, sometimes it can get depressingly overcast. Not the case that day! All of the cooking demonstrations took place outside in their Great Tide Pool Deck which faces the ocean. Yes, the ocean! Perfect blues skies, fluffy white clouds, wonderful light sea breeze, clear deep blue waters, it was like a page out of a magazine. I could've sat there all day just to stare! Now throw in cooking, can anything be more perfect!? Food/cooking + outdoors, two of my favorite things in the whole world together in one place, I was in heaven. Then heaven just keep getting better! Not only did I get to see some of my favorite chefs cook but I got to eat! Everything that was made during the cooking demo, larger portions were prepared in the back and brought out to the audience for tasting. It was glorious! I was like a kid in a candy store with no adult supervision, I ate everything! Who wouldn't?! 
(....more to come)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Maple Walnut Ice Cream!

It's ice cream season once again! Finally its that time of year where its warm enough to play with my beloved ice cream machine. I may or may not have left the freezer bowl in the freezer since last summer... but hey that only means its ready for me to use whenever I decide to use it, that's my excuse anyways. It had nothing to do with the fact that I was too lazy to get take it out when summer was over... In my defense, it was in the outside freezer so, out of sight, out of mind? You know what, I'm glad I didn't, for once lazy worked out okay.

Really what sparked interest in ice cream making was last week, when northern CA got hit with a hot spell, like record breaking temperature hot, and sometime during that week, both my brother and I decided some ice cream would be awesome at this point. Of course there was no ice cream to be found during that time frame only me making a commitment to make some for us once the weekend comes when I have more time. Unfortunately (and very thankfully) the temperature dropped from 90s back down to 70s by the time we reached weekend status. Well that's not going to stop me, I've already made up my mind, I'm going to make ice cream and I will enjoy it whether it be 100 degrees or 60...turns out, it was closer to 60. Oh well, ice cream is ice cream, its still delicious.

So once again, I crack open my handy dandy ice cream cookbook I bought last year, love that thing, Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones, for some delicious suggestions. I'm not quite sure how I landed on this particular recipe out of so many in the book, it must've been one of those flip to a random page and it just so happens that I had everything this recipe called for AND I've never had maple walnut ice cream before. Sure, why not?!

This came out so smooth and creamy and delicious! The maple and walnut paired with each other flawlessly. Slightly sweet but not over powering so that you can't taste it and the toasted walnuts helped enhanced the maple flavor as well as giving it that extra bite. A must try!

Maple Walnut Ice Cream
from Bi-Rite Creamery's cookbook: Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones
** note: requires an ice cream machine for best result

  • 5 large egg yolks (edit: I just realized I wrote "eggs" rather than "egg yolks"! I hope no one's tried it with all of the egg, sorry!)
  • 3/4 cup maple syrup ~ 12 tbsp (grade B preferred, organic; I used regular and it came out just fine)  
  • 1 3/4 cups of heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup 1% or 2% milk
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts (I placed the chopped walnuts in a sheet pan and baked at 325 F degrees for about 8 minutes)
  1. In a medium heatproof bowl, whisk the yolks just to break them up, then whisk in half of the maple syrup (about 6 tbsp), set aside.
  2. In a heavy nonreactive pan, stir together cream, milk, salt, and the remaining maple syrup (about 6 tbsp) and put the pan over medium-high heat. When the mixture approaches a bare simmer, reduce heat to medium.
  3. Carefully scoop out about 1/2 cup of the hot cream mixture and, whisking the eggs constantly, add the cream to the bowl with the egg yolks. Repeat, adding another 1/2 cup of the hot cream to the bowl with yolks. Using a heatproof rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir the cream in the saucepan as you slowly pour the egg-cream mixture from the bowl into the pan.
  4. Cook the mixture carefully over medium heat stirring constantly, until thicken (this part is tricky, because it doesn't get really thick just thick enough so that the mixture coats the back of the spatula and when you run your finger along it, it holds a clear path) and then cook for another 1-2 minutes longer (don't over cook otherwise it becomes grainy and egg-y in flavor)
  5. Strain the base through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean container. Set container into an ice bath, using a clean spatula, stir the base occasionally until it becomes cool (or you can stick it in the fridge and stir it every 5 minutes until completely cooled). Remove from ice bath and cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the base for at least 2 hours or overnight
  6. Freeze in ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions. Add in walnuts in towards the end of churning or mix in by hand before transferring the ice cream into its container.   

Monday, May 19, 2014

Another Cake Story: Chiffon Cake with Balsamic Strawberry Mousse

It would appear that I've been neglecting this blog for a little bit... although to be honest in the past week(s) I've been feeling a bit unmotivated and a bit bummed out but I think the source of that may be because of what happened last weekend which pretty much pushed it over the edge. The tone at the start of the weekend was terrible and as a result carried its way through. Fortunately things started to somewhat turn around as the week progressed and then something very awesome happened yesterday so things are looking much brighter (more on that later). While being bum is a totally acceptable human thing to feel, its not smart to live there too long. 

Last weekend was Mother's Day weekend. Hope everyone did at least one nice thing for their mothers whether it be something small or something huge, I think all thoughts and gestures are welcomed no matter what. My family isn't big on any type of celebrations but regardless, I always try to do something and that something is usually food related. Our family didn't have much while I was growing up, so many times, a nice meal is really all we can call a celebration and so that's become our tradition. People make huge deals about birthdays, Christmas, other types of celebrations with parties, gifts/presents, fancy dinners, etc, but having grown up with none of those options, I'm quite content with the small things. Of course who doesn't like presents!? Let's not kid ourselves here, BUT at the end of the day, I'm most happy with gifts that come from the heart, it doesn't have to be fancy or expensive, just something to show thought went into it. 

Anyways, so Mother's Day weekend, on Saturday I thought I'd wake up early and make another visit to 85 degrees bakery in San Jose, I know I've mentioned not wanting to go back there but my mom seems to like the breads I bought home last time which is a pretty rare thing so I decided to make another trip to get her some more breads. The bakery opened at 7am so I woke up at 6am to beat the cowards...well I sort of did. There are still a good number of people but I didn't have to wait as long, I was out in 15 minutes rather than 30. Even though I had stopped by the bakery the day before, I wanted to make something from scratch, so I decided on a chiffon cake because it was one of the cakes I make that my mom really enjoys.

I've made this cake before except unlike last time, my mousse came out perfect! Its amazing how far a little bit more experience will get you. The small victories. The chiffon cake and the mousse paired wonderfully together both light and fluffy and not too sweet.

Chiffon Cake with Balsamic Strawberry Mousse
adapted from Better Homes and Garden Cookbook (cake) and Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones (base for mousse)

For cake:
  • 7 eggs
  • 2 1/4 cup cake flour (all purpose will work as well, cake flour tends to yield cakes that are less dense)
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup cold water
  • 1/2 cup cooking oil (I used canola)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • 2 tsp finely shredded orange peel (optional, I omitted this for this particular combo)
  • 1 tsp finely shredded lemon peel (optional, I omitted this for this particular combo)
For mousse:
  • 1 1/2 pints of strawberries or 3 cups, halved or quartered
  •  2 1/2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 3 1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin 
  • 2 cups of whipping cream
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
For cake:
  1. Separate eggs. Allow to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. In a large mixing bowl stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour mix. Add in egg yolk, cold water, oil, (orange peel, lemon peel) and vanilla.
  2. Beat at low speed until well combined and then beat at high speed for 5 minutes until mixture becomes satin smooth.
  3. In an extra large mixing bowl beat egg whiles and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Pour batter in a thin stream over beaten egg whites, fold in gently.
  4. Bake 325 F degrees for 20-30 minutes if in a shallow pan OR if using a bundt pan, bake for approx 65-70 minutes. Cake it is done with the top springs back when lightly touched.
For Mousse:
  1. Combine berries, sugar, and vinegar in a nonreactive skillet. While stirring, cook over medium heat until strawberries are soft and the liquid they released is reduced (approx 6-8 minutes)
  2. Transfer berries and their juices to a blender/food processor and puree.
  3. Transfer back to pot and stir in gelatin (over low heat if necessary) until completely dissolved. Set aside to cool, stirring occasionally to avoid gelatin to set completely.
  4. Whip the cream and sugar together until stiff peaks form, then slowly whip in the puree. Mousse is not ready to be used as cake filling or can be transferred to a mold and enjoyed later once its set in the refrigerator. Allow 1-2 hours to set.  
Now for a side tangent: that awesome thing that happened yesterday is probably not all that awesome to most people but I was rather happy about it. On the way home from work I decided to stop by the Eddie Bauer outlet store to see if they had any good hiking/outdoor backpacks because I've been hunting for one for a while and totally forgot Eddie Bauer has some really good bags. I almost didn't go but decided I'll make a quick round just to see and then go home. I went in, headed straight towards the backpacks so I wouldn't be distracted by anything else. I was just about to head out when I decided to take one last glance to make sure I didn't miss anything and that's when I saw them, all the way on the bottom were the perfect hiking/outdoor backpack I've been looking for, looked at the price tag $59.99 ... made a face, looked around for additional promotions and saw that there was only a $10 off deal, thought about it and decided to get it anyways even though Memorial Day weekend was coming up and there might be a better deal, like 40% off. When I got to the register to pay, I asked the cashier if she knew what the deals were going to be and she didn't but she informed me that if the deals were better I could bring it back in for a price adjustment. I was pretty content with that answer, making a mental note to check back in a week. Then she rings the backpack up and we both went "what!?" Probably for different reasons but it turns out the backpack was 50% off! She chuckled and said "Well I guess you won't have to come back, what a steal." What a steal indeed... and with that I thought "hmm not a bad start for this weekend."