Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Zen Monkey for Breakfast on the Run

I'm most definitely an oatmeal girl, but when the temps start to rise it's not quite as appealing to stand over a hot stove cooking it up (no, I don't microwave it). My summer weekday go-to breakfast is often a half cup of Trader Joe's maple pecan granola mixed with berries and Greek yogurt. So, when I was invited to try this new breakfast offering called Zen Monkey, which is a blend of equal parts oats, yogurt, and fruit, well, we were pretty much mostly there in my morning comfort zone.

So, what are we talking about here? There are three flavors: strawberry, apple cinnamon, and blueberry. Chunks of the fruit are blended with plain nonfat yogurt, agave nectar, and oatmeal soaked in apple juice. The result is a very authentic flavor with a texture that may take some getting used to. You don't get the crunch of my granola combo but it's not the same as a bowl of oatmeal either. To be honest, it's sort of goopy, but it absolutely grows on you.

Made in L.A., where it got its start at the L.A. Farmers Market, the labeling shows that the container is actually two servings, but even if you eat the entire thing, depending on the flavor, you'll still only be out only 260 calories and 3 grams of fat. You'll also have consumed 5 grams of fiber.

Now the PR spin on this is that it's the California rendition of a cereal, invented by Swiss physician Maximillian Bircher-Benner--the Birchermuesli having become a popular Swiss and German breakfast treat. That's all well and good, but this isn't muesli, nor does it have to be. The oatmeal works and gives busy people a way to eat a nutritious, well-balanced breakfast that also tastes pretty darn good.

You can find Zen Monkey at Southern California Whole Foods markets for $2.99 per 8-ounce container.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Azúcar's Key Lime White Chocolate Scones

 When Vivian Hernandez-Jackson invited me to come back scones with her at her Ocean Beach eatery, Azúcar, I wondered how that thoroughly British pastry related to her Cuban heritage. A first-generation American whose parents settled in Miami, where she was born and raised, Vivian turns out magnificent casual Cuban dishes like traditional Cubano sandwiches with rich, slow-roasted Cuban-style pork, sliced ham, and Swiss cheese served with plantain chips and a remarkable mojo dip--a blend of sour orange juice, canola oil and pureed raw garlic. Her Cuban meat pies are reminiscent of empanadas--a sweet meat filling that goes back to the picadillo santiaguerro her mom made wrapped in a flaky dough.

But scones?

To get the scones you have to dig a little into Vivian's background. "I started cooking at age seven and was obsessed by cooking shows," she reminisces. "I loved watching The Frugal Gourmet, Nathalie Dupree, and Jacques Pepin."

As she grew up, she knew she wanted to bake for a living but dutifully attended Florida International University, where she earned a degree in hotel management in just three years--satisfying her parents' need for her to do something practical.

Then she headed off for London for a year in 2001, where she attended Le Cordon Bleu, taking both the cooking and baking courses. "I loved that actual cooking is what we did. Everyday."

During that time, she worked at Claridge's and--here's the payoff--made hundreds and hundreds of scones. They became as much a part of her repertoire as the other pastries she learned to make. She brought those skills back to Miami, where she was a pastry cook at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel for a year before moving to San Diego to teach at the National Culinary School in La Mesa for a couple of years. The desk job Vivian then took in product development for a food marketing company lasted only a year and a half before she knew she had to get back into a kitchen. She took a job as pastry cook at Tartine in Coronado and her three years there gave her the insights she needed into how to run a small retail bakery.

By then Vivian and her husband had settled in Ocean Beach and she realized that there was no place to get made-from-scratch pastries in the neighborhood. It was the end of 2007 when she signed a lease for her spot on Newport Ave. Azúcar opened the following July. Now, about to celebrate six years in business she marvels that she launched it at the very moment the country was sinking into the Great Recession.

But people need to eat. And Vivian gets a thrill whenever she drives through the neighborhood and sees people holding her distinctive green pastry boxes or cups of coffee with green coffee sleeves.

And her food? She's figured out ways to give a tropical, Cuban flair to traditional pastries--adding coconut and macademia nuts to Florentine Bars, and key limes, mojito mint, mango, Cuban rum, and passion fruit to her many other sweets--and to improve the ingredients of the Cuban foods she grew up enjoying. So, no lard or margarine in her doughs; it's good butter. Quality pork and cheeses, chocolate and ham. And her pastries are baked in real time.

In fact, when I arrived at Azúcar at 2:30 in the afternoon, all the pastries for the following day had been made and put raw in the freezer to be baked first thing the following morning and throughout the day as needed. It alleviates the stress of making and baking early in the morning and reduces waste. Plus, customers get freshly baked treats throughout the day.

So, Vivian waited for me to arrive to bake her planned batch of Key Lime White Chocolate Scones. It's truly an easy recipe that produces a soft, melt-in-your-mouth pastry that teases with the brightness of key lime flavor. And, Vivian has some very cool tricks to make the baking and enjoying process even easier. It starts with having the flexibility of making the dough (or buying it from her) and freezing to bake later in small batches or even one at a time. And, with this wet dough, you form the individual scones by using a large ice cream scoop. This way you have uniform-sized pastries and you prevent overhandling the dough. In fact, I was surprised that even I, who she put to work scooping out the dough onto the half sheet, reached the end of the sheet with precisely 54 scones (6X9 even rows) with nothing left in the Hobart mixer's bowl. I love the precision of a good baker.

Key Lime White Chocolate Scones
from Vivian Hernandez-Jackson, Azúcar
(printable recipe)

Makes 9 large scones

For scones:
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter cold diced
3/4 cup buttermilk
zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons key lime juice (You can find containers of Nelly & Joe's Key West Lime Juice at major supermarkets.)

1/2 cup white chocolate chips or chunks
Baking spray
Granulated sugar

For key lime icing:
1/4 cup key lime juice
1 cup powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 325˚.
2. With mixer on low speed and using paddle attachment, combine dry ingredients. Add the cold diced butter and blend until the mixture resembles wet sand and no large pieces butter remain.

3. Pour in the buttermilk, zest, and juice. Mix until all are combined, then gently mix in white chocolate chips/chunks.

4. Scoop scones onto a sheet pan with parchment paper that has been sprayed with baking spray. Place about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle with a bit of sugar before baking.

At this point you can freeze them and bake off when needed.

If baking fresh: 25-30 minutes
If baking frozen: 30-35 minutes

When scones come out of the oven, drizzle with key lime icing. If you have leftover scones the following day, reheat them briefly in the microwave just to warm them inside before eating.

Azúcar is located at 4820 Newport Ave. in Ocean Beach. It's open daily, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Father's Day Dutch Pancakes with Beer

Dear Dad,

Father's Day is coming up this Sunday and there's so much for me to thank you for. I don't need to get too personal here. After all we talk all the time. But I did want to thank you for being so clever in getting that job running the L.A. County Museum of Art when I was a teenager. It changed my life. Actually, it opened up my life--literally exposing me to the world as our family met artists, curators, and other museum directors from so many countries and cultures.

One of my favorite experiences was when Tom and Hoodle van Leeuwen came for a visit from Amsterdam, where Hoodle--who had an uncanny resemblance to tall and leggy Carly Simon--was your counterpart at the Van Gogh Museum. Forget my big adventure driving them from the Valley to the Watts Towers as a newly minted driver. Tom had made you his memorable pancakes when you, Mom, and Jay visited them. When they came to stay at our house he taught you how to make them for us. We always called them Tom Aches and they were a huge treat.

For years after that visit, you continued to make them for the family and for friends. They were unusual because one of the key ingredients is beer. And, forget putting maple syrup on these crepe-like pancakes. Once they slid from the pan to the plate, we would slather them with melted butter, then sprinkle powder sugar followed by a good squeeze of lemon juice--just as Tom and Hoodle taught us. The flavor was unforgettable--a subtle hint of fermentation from the beer, but beautifully complemented by sweet and tart with a chewy texture. I know you prefer to eat them with lingonberry jam that you get at Ikea, but I savor that unusual beer/butter/powder sugar/lemon juice combo.

I'm so happy that you agreed to make them for me last week. For years I've stared at that list of ingredients that passed as the recipe, but since there were no amounts I felt powerless to even try to make the batter. You did it by feel. Well, I'm glad we took the time to measure it all out. Now the grandkids can make them in the future. Hey, now I can make them!

I have so many friends whose father's culinary talent was limited to making restaurant reservations. I feel so fortunate that I got to grow up with parents who felt the heart of the home was the kitchen and that both had the skills and love of food to back it up. Grandma Anna would be so proud!

Happy Father's Day, Dad!

All my love,

Tom Aches (Dutch Pancakes)
(printable recipe)
Serves 3 or 4

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
3 eggs
1/4 cup milk
2/3 cup water
1 1/3 cup beer
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter, melted (split between cooking the pancakes and spreading on the finished pancakes)
1 lemon, cut into squeezable slices
Powder sugar

In a large bowl whisk together flour and eggs. Add the water, milk, and beer. Whisk until smooth. Adjust with either more liquid or more flour to reach the consistency of a light soup. Let sit for about five minutes. Whisk in salt.

Heat a frying pan and brush on butter to coast the surface. When hot ladle in enough batter to form a thin coating on the pan. Watch for it to form bubbles. Brush the bubbles with butter. Flip the pancake to cook on the other side for just a minute. Then flip again and slide onto a plate. Ladle in more batter and repeat. You should have enough for 8 or 9 pancakes.

Brush the pancake with melted butter. Sprinkle with powered sugar. Squeeze lemon juice over the sugar. Fold into thirds and serve.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Tuna Stuffed Chayote Squash

Are there moments in your life when you're going about your day and out of the blue you have some gustatory memory that you have to re-experience--now? Well, this happens fairly regularly for me but it's been awhile since I've thought of this dish that my mom used to make our family for dinner when I was growing up. But there I was at the market yesterday picking up some garlic and onions and other random items when I was struck by the memory of my mom's chayote squash stuffed with tuna. And then I realized that the chayote squash were in my peripheral vision, stacked up among the produce aisle where I had been scanning my shopping list.

I didn't think twice about grabbing a couple of the squash. Then I had to search my memory for what went into the dish, besides canned tuna (okay, think of this as sort of modestly elevated tuna casserole; I did grow up in the 60s and 70s after all). When all else fails, call Mom. So, she reminded me of how she had made it and off I went home with my ingredients to make the dish.

She also reminded me that this dish actually was something her mother made for her young family when my mom  was a girl. Call it a Victory Garden meal. My grandparents had a large enough yard in their East L.A. home during World War II for a sprawling garden that provided most of the produce for the family. Including chayote squash. What else would be affordable for a family of five in the 40s? Canned tuna. So, my Nana came up with this dish and my mom continued it for our family. 

If you haven't been exposed to chayote squash, now's the time for an introduction. It's a hard light green pear-shaped fruit with creamy white flesh--like a pear. To be honest, it doesn't have a lot of flavor; it's a little sweet in a bland sort of way. But that makes it the perfect partner for all sorts of powerful ingredients. While you can dice it and saute it, its shape makes it a wonderful vessel for stuffing--once you remove the flesh. And that requires about 20 minutes of par boiling.

My mom pairs it with the canned tuna--along with sauteed onion and garlic, mixed with bread crumbs. In my version I add Dijon mustard as well, along with salt and pepper. And, how did it come out? Actually, even better than I had remembered it. The juices from the tuna. The heavenly sauteed onion and garlic. The spiciness of the mustard. They all married beautifully with the squash, with the crispy oniony, garlicky breadcrumbs the cherry on top. Totally a mom--or Nana--kind of economical comfort food.

Evie's Tuna-Stuffed Chayote Squash
(printable recipe)
Serves 2

2 chayote squash, sliced in half lengthwise
1/2 large yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (I like to use Panache Pantry's Vintage Sicilian Wheat)
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus another tablespoon
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1, 5-ounce can wild albacore tuna (I used Wild Planet's 100% pole and troll caught), drained and flaked
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the squash and boil for 20 minutes or until they're almost fully cooked. Drain and let cool.
2. While the squash halves are cooking, heat olive oil in a skillet and add the onion and garlic. Saute on medium heat until the onion becomes golden and the garlic fragrant. Then add the breadcrumbs. Stir the mixture over the heat until it just begins to brown. Then remove from the heat and spoon the mixture into a small bowl and set aside.

3. Preheat the oven to 350˚. When the squash halves are cool enough to handle, remove the seed, then use a large spoon to carefully scoop out the flesh. Try not to tear the skin so you have an intact shell. There will probably be water in the remaining shell. Drain it.

4. Chop up the squash flesh and add it to a large bowl. Add the tuna, 3/4 of the onion mixture, the Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. Mix well.

5. Gently stuff the squash shells with the mixture. Top with the remainder of the onion mixture and drizzle with a little olive oil. Place the stuffed shells on a baking sheet or in a baking dish.

6. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes or until the top is brown and crisp.

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