Ecuadorian cuisine with Chef Alejandra

Today I volunteered to assist an Ecuadorean-born, French-trained chef Alejandra Espinoza with teaching her class on Ecuadorean cuisine. Chef Alejandra puts a slight French twist on traditional Ecuadorean dishes, like seasoning the fish with lime juice and piment d’Espelet, or using shallots, white wine, and cream to turn an otherwise simple quinoa with vegetables into a delicious risotto. She uses freshest local seasonal ingredients for her menus, but her pantry items come from South America, Europe, and all over the world.

The menu:
Guacamole, green plantain chips
Shrimp ceviche with chulpi

Grilled ling cod in lime sauce
Quinoa risotto with squash, white corn, pecorino cheese

Tres leches with fresh strawberries

The beauty of working alongside a chef with such a unique and diverse background is that you learn a lot.

– Use slightly overripe avocados for easy mashing into a guacamole
– You can get the best, freshest local catch if you come to Pier 33 very early in the morning
– Ecuadorean ceviche is not spicy (unlike the Peruvian ceviche that I was familiar with). The aromatic broth used to cook the shrimps is then strained, chilled, and added to the marinade, alongside the lime juice, red onions, and cilantro. No chilies!
– Ecuadorean guacamole, on the other hand, is almost too hot for me to eat
– Green plantain, thinly sliced and deep fried, makes wonderful crunchy chips
– Chulpi, the South American snack of salted roasted corn of a particular variety, is dangerously addictive
– Having a housecleaner help during a cooking class makes the chef’s work 100x easier. Thank you, Dina!
– Parking in Cow Hollow is a nightmare, but it’s doable after 6 pm

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Location:San Francisco, CA


Here is the interview that Chef Garbo did with me for the Personal Chef magazine:
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My Italy

My Italy doesn’t have anything to do with the sandy beaches, vineyards on sunny slopes, Caravaggio’s Bacchus or Brulov’s Italian Midday, tourist crowds in Rome and the carnival in Venice, vine-ripe tomatoes and vacations on a Tuscan farm. I may see this sunny Italy some other time. For now, my Italy is icy winding mountain roads, an alpine village, enveloped in a blizzard, valleys so deep and mountains so high that it makes you wonder what people thought of the outside world before car and air travel; endless pistes and shoulder-deep powder off-piste; piercing icy wind in the streets of Torino; ancient castles on mountaintops; hot wine and a laconic, thin and crisp pizza with nothing more than cheese and tomato sauce on top, in front of the fire in a mountain hotel; my family on skis and snowboards making it down in time for dinner at our cabin; my sister-in-law and I taking turns shaving the fennel for the salad real thin with my folding knife. I like my Italy.

Borlotti beans and shaved fennel salad

The bean recipe will yield more cooked beans than you’ll need for the salad. Store the extra beans in their cooking liquid in the refrigerator for up to a week, serve as a side dish to meat and poultry, over pasta, or toss with sautéed sausages or ham and some greens

Serves 6

2 cups dried borlotti (cranberry) beans
1 medium onion, sliced
1 medium carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
1 sprig sage

2 large fennel bulbs
Juice of 1 lemon
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt, pepper
Shaved Parmesan

Cook the beans:

Cover the beans with 1 gallon of water; let sit 4-6 hours or overnight. Drain and rinse the beans. Cover with 1 gallon of fresh water, bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low/medium low to maintain a slow simmer. Add onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf, thyme, and sage. Cook until almost tender, 30-50 minutes, depending on the quality and age of the beans. Salt liberally (taste the water, not the beans; it should be a little too salty). Finish cooking until the beans are tender, 10-15 minutes. Remove vegetables and herbs, let the beans cool in their cooking liquid.

Assemble the salad:

Allow about 1/2 cup cooked beans per serving. Rinse the beans, arrange on the salad plates. Trim the fronds and stalks from the fennel bulbs (reserve a few fronds for garnish). Using a mandolin or a sharp knife, shave the fennel paper-thin, starting at the top, so that the root end holds the bulb together as you cut it. Toss fennel with the lemon juice. Arrange fennel on top of the beans, season with salt, pepper, and olive oil, garnish with shaved Parmesan and the reserved fennel fronds.

Pappardelle with rabbit ragu and wild mushrooms

Serves 6

For the pappardelle:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup semolina flour, plus more for dusting
16 quail eggs, or 4 medium chicken eggs

For the rabbit ragu:
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
Salt, pepper
1 rabbit, cut up
1 large onion, sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 large carrot, sliced
3 large cloves garlic
1 large can San Marzano tomatoes, or 6 very ripe Roma tomatoes, peeled
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken (or rabbit) stock
2 sprigs thyme
1 small sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves

1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 Tbsp olive oil

Shaved Parmesan
Parsley leaves, for garnish

Make the pasta:

Combine the flours in a large bowl, make a well in the middle. Break the eggs into the well, mix to incorporate and make a stiff but still pliable dough. If the dough is too wet, add more semolina. If it’s too stiff to knead, add a few drops of water. Knead for 5-7 minutes. Wrap in plastic and let rest for 30-60 minutes. Using a pasta machine or a rolling pin, roll out the dough as thin as possible. Cut into 1-inch wide strips. Dust with semolina, hang over a back of a chair, or on a pasta-drying rack to dry a little.

Make the rabbit ragu:

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Place the flour in a plastic bag, season with salt and pepper. Put the rabbit pieces into the bag, toss to cover, remove from bag, shake off the excess flour, sauté until golden on both sides, 10-15 minutes. Remove to a plate. Add onions, celery, carrot, and garlic to the pan. Sauté until softened, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, with their juice, wine, and the stock to the pan. Using a wooden spoon or a silicon spatula, scrape all the golden pieces from the bottom and the sides of the pan to incorporate into the liquid.

Arrange the rabbit pieces in a large Dutch oven or a slow-cooker pan. Pour the vegetable, stock, and wine mixture on top. Cook on the stovetop, at a low simmer, 3 hours, or in a slow cooker, at a low setting, 6 hours or overnight.

Remove the meat from the ragu, take the meat off the bones, discard the bones. Using two forks, shred some of the meat. Return the meat to the ragu.

Cook the mushrooms:

Put the dried mushrooms in a small bowl, cover with hot water, let sit until softened, 15-20 minutes. Squeeze the mushrooms dry (strain and reserve the soaking liquid for another use, or add it to the ragu). Heat the oil on a small pan over medium heat. Add mushrooms and a pinch of salt, sauté until the mushrooms are dry and golden.


Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water until a’l dente, 2-3 minutes. Remove, drain, place in individual pasta bowls. Top with rabbit ragu and sautéed mushrooms, garnish with shaved Parmesan and parsley.

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BBQ pulled pork

This post is for my brother Paul, it continues the discussion that we had last week.

On our family reunion in the Italian Alps last week, my brother and I started talking about cooking pork, and I tried to explain pork barbecue. He thought that barbecue was the same thing as grill! Yes, American BBQ is kind of like grilling, cooking slowly over wood coals; but we also call a BBQ anything seasoned with a BBQ sauce, even if it’s not cooked over the coals. And what they call a BBQ sauce is different in different parts of the country. Now try to explain this to a European.

The BBQ pork that I made today was actually cooked in the oven, then shredded and seasoned with a purchased sauce. My favorite BBQ sauce is the “SFQ”, an artisan-made San Francisco style sauce, but others work well, too. I gave up on making my own BBQ sauce when the first recipe that I pulled from the Internet started with “2 cups sugar”. Wow, this is as much sugar as I use for my morning coffee in 3 month! I went into denial, and now i just go out and buy a prepared sauce. I try not to read the labels on them.

BBQ pulled pork
Serves 6

2 Tbsp olive oil
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
Pinch allspice
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp salt

1 large onion, sliced
4 large cloves garlic

1 cup prepared BBQ sauce of your choice

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Season pork with salt and spices. Cook, turning (in batches, if necessary), until browned on all sides, 10-15 minutes.

Transfer pork to a covered braising pan, add onion and garlic, and enough water to cover the meat half-way. Cover, cook in the oven until very tender, 2-3 hours.

Shred the meat using two forks, season with the BBQ sauce. Serve with cornbread, or on buns, or over beans or pasta.

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Summer menu today

I met my client’s father when he was visiting from Europe almost a year ago. He loves soups, and when he learned that I am from Russia, he said I should make a borscht. I promised.

When I put borscht on the menu this week, I didn’t know that the client’s parents are coming to visit again. But here they are, and the borscht, Moscow style, is on the menu. I hope the old man enjoys it as much as I enjoyed making it.

Bacon-wrapped sea scallops
Creamed spinach

Heirloom tomato tart
Greek salad

Pork and vegetables stir-fry
Wild rice with mushrooms

Beef ragu
Fetucchine with garlic and herbs

I am very happy with this ragu: the quality of the stock that you use to deglaze the pan matters as much as the quality of the meat. Since I was making a rich beef stock for my borscht right here on the next burner, this ragu, made with grass-fed ground beef and bits and pieces of USDA Prime steak, also got fresh homemade beef stock. Other ingredients: olive oil, onion, garlic, carrot, celery, white wine, tomato paste, strained tomatoes, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, thyme, sea salt, fresh ground black pepper.

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Location:Palo Alto, CA

Winter menu for today

Our winter is mild, there is no snow, the mimosa is blooming, and we get a couple of hours of short sleeves almost every day. But by the dinner time it’s usually cold and dark. Dark, cold, and windy. Cold.

So here is a comforting winter menu that I cooked today. It’s full of hearty meats, mushrooms, citrus fruits that are natural antidepressants and are in season right now, and it even includes my Grandma’s meat pies, directly from Russia, recipe follows.

The menu:
Roasted vegetables soup

Salmon with lemon and parsley gremolata
Fennel gratin

Farfalle with creamy chicken and mushroom sauce

Roasted pork loin with honey and orange glaze
Braised red cabbage

Meat pies
Spinach salad with walnuts, orange, and goat cheese

The meat pies are based on my grandmother’s recipe for Tartar belyashi, or peremyachi, with a few changes made to accommodate modern Californian ingredients. They are a perfect accompaniment to any winter soup.

Meat pies
Makes 12

For the dough:
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 packets active dry yeast
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 egg
1-1/2 cup of warm water, or enough to form a soft, pliable dough

For the filling:
1 lb ground grass-fed beef
12 oz ground lamb
2 medium onions, minced
1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, minced
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce, or to taste
Sea salt, fresh ground black pepper to taste

For cooking: 1/2 cup grape seed oil, or other high temperature, neutral-tasting oil

In a large bowl, combine flour, yeast, sugar, salt, egg. Add water, a little at a time, and mix with your hands to make a soft dough, about the texture of pizza dough. Knead for 5 minutes. Form the dough into a neat ball, put in the bowl, cover with a napkin, and set in a warm place to rise. After about 1 hour the dough should double in size. Pinch it back and fold 2-3 times. Let rise and double in size again.

Combine ground beef, ground lamb, onions, parsley, and Worcestershire sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Fry a bite-size piece of the filling and taste for seasoning. Adjust the seasoning. Divide the filling into 12 more or less equal portions.

Remove the dough onto a surface dusted with flour. Cut the dough into 12 equal portions; roll each portion into a ball. Roll out each ball into a 6-inch disc. Place a portion of the filling in the middle of a disk, gather the sides and pinch them together to enclose the filling, leaving a small opening in the middle. Flatten the pie with your palm into 1-inch thick disk. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Let the pies rest 20-25 minutes.

Divide the oil between two large frying pans. Heat the pans over medium heat. Place the pies, open side down, into the pans. Cook until well browned. Turn over, baste with hot oil from the pans, cook until golden on the other side and cooked through, 10-12 minutes. Remove the pies to a paper towel covered plate. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

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Location:Palo Alto, CA

Eclectic early fall menu today

The chilled beet soup with horseradish sour cream (from Fine Cooking “Fresh”) is based on the Eastern European cold summer borscht recipe, but the addition of orange zest and juice (I used Valencia orange), honey, and the use of red wine vinegar instead of the usual distiller vinegar take it to another level. Roasting beets intensifies the flavor. If you think that you don’t like beets, and you only tried the tasteless canned variety, please, reconsider.

Get the beets with the greens still attached, trim off the greens, leaving 1 inch on, scrub the roots; place the beet roots with 1/2 cup water, a few thyme sprigs, and a few strips of orange zest in an ovenproof dish, wrap in aluminum foil, and place in a 400 degrees oven for an hour or so. Remove from oven, let cool, peel the beets with your (gloved) fingers. Taste the difference.

Chilled beet soup with horseradish sour cream
Serves four

1-1/2 lb. small or medium beets (2 bunches), trimmed, scrubbed
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 strips orange zest
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground white or black pepper
2 Tbsp EVOO
2-1/2 cups chicken stock or water
2 tsp honey
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar

1 Tbsp prepared horseradish
1/2 cup sour cream
Cream or water as needed
Fresh dill sprigs for garnish (optional)

Bake beets and garlic with orange zest, thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Peel beets and garlic. Discard orange zest and thyme, save the pan juices (strain).

Blend in batches beets, garlic, pan juices, chicken stock, honey. Stir in orange juice and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate.

Stir horseradish into sour cream. Thin with cream or water, if needed. Refrigerate.

To serve, ladle soup into bowls, spoon a little horseradish sour cream on top, garnish with dill.

Vegetable lasagna has layers of sautéed onion, garlic, eggplant, zucchini, and red bell pepper, layered with ricotta cheese and tomato sauce, with sautéed mushrooms and fresh mozzarella on top.

The menu:
Chilled beet soup with horseradish sour cream


Vegetable lasagna
Mediterranean salad

Spiced sweet potatoes

Chicken Marengo
Farro risotto with mushrooms

Stuffed peppers

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Location:San Francisco, CA

Indian home cooking, Part III

Today in my Indian client’s kitchen we were cooking some exotic vegetables that Alaka, her mom, bought at an Indian grocery store, and showed me how to prepare.

Indian eggplant is a cute little eggplant the shape and size of a small egg, deep purple color. Alaka got a dozen of them, we stuffed them with a mix made of grated peanuts and spices, and cooked with some water added to make a sauce. Here is a catch: Alaka uses her own goda masala spice blend, that she brought from home, and I don’t have the recipe for it. She promised to email me the recipe after she gets back home and gets it out of her files. For now, we tried to find an Indian store that carries this wonderfully aromatic blend of warm spices, and we failed so far… So here is the partial recipe, pending the recipe for goda masala to follow next month:

Stuffed Indian eggplant
Serves four to six

12 Indian eggplants, leaves removed
1 cup roasted peanuts, ground in a blender or food processor
1-1/2 tsp ground coriander seeds
1-1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp goda masala
1 tsp salt, or to taste

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp brown mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 medium onion, minced
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp jaggery (raw sugar)

Chopped cilantro, to garnish

Cut eggplants crosswise into quarters, leaving the stem ends attached. Make the stuffing: mix ground peanuts, ground coriander, ground cumin, goda masala, and salt. Open each eggplant like a flower, and put a little of the stuffing inside. Press closed.

In a heavy pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add mustard seeds and heat until the mustard seeds start to pop. Add cumin seeds, turmeric powder, and onion. Brown lightly. Add stuffed eggplants, water, and leftover stuffing, season with jaggery. Cover and cook until the eggplants are very tender and the sauce thickens, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.

Bottle gourd, or white gourd resembles a large pale zucchini. The simple preparation that we did is very characteristic of Alaka’s style of Indian cooking, and can be used with other vegetables as well. It starts with making tadka, the traditional flavor base of brown mustard seed, cumin, and turmeric. Then the vegetable is seasoned and cooked until tender.

Indian white gourd
Serves four

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp brown mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp turmeric powder
4 white (bottle) gourds, cut into small dice
1 cup water
2 tsp goda masala
Salt to taste
2 Tbsp jaggery, or to taste
Chopped cilantro, to garnish

Heat the oil in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add mustard seeds, heat until the mustard seeds start to pop. Add cumin seeds, turmeric, gourd, water, goda masala, season with salt and jaggery. Cover and cook until the gourd is very tender. Serve sprinkled with chopped cilantro.

Bitter melon. This one is really, seriously bitter. They say it’s very good for you, and can be addictive. This recipe balances the bitterness with the heat of the chili and the sweetness of the raw sugar, which makes for a very strong and complex taste. It’s more like a condiment than a dish. It’s traditionally eaten with roti.

4 small bitter melons
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp brown mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp turmeric
1-1/2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp jaggery (raw sugar)

Cut the ends off the bitter melons. Cut them in halves lengthwise. With a spoon, scoop out and discard the seeds. Chop into 1/4-inch pieces.

Make tadka: heat oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add mustard seeds, heat until the mustard seeds start to pop. Add cumin seeds and turmeric.

Add the bitter melon, chili powder, and salt. Stir-fry until the bitter melon is tender and begins to brown, about 10 minutes.

In a mortar, break down jaggery into very small pieces. Add jaggery to the skillet, stir, and let it coat the bitter melon and caramelize.

Menu today:
Curried carrot soup

Stuffed Indian eggplant
White rice

Pacific snapper with mango-tomatillo salsa
Bean salad

Scallops with feta and spinach
Roasted butternut squash

Mushroom and asparagus frittata
Heirloom tomato salad Caprese

Chicken roasted with fennel and apples
Fennel gratin

Indian bottle gourd

Bitter melon

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Location:San Francisco, CA

Learning Indian home cooking

This month I started cooking for one of your typical international Californian families: the husband is from Hungary, the wife from India. Both love their native cuisines, and want to share them at the family dinner table, but with two little kids and two full-time jobs they of course need help cooking.

I have an extensive menu of Eastern-European dishes, including a few traditional Hungarian recipes, so I was able to satisfy the Hungarian side of the family just fine. My ideas of Indian cuisine, on the other hand, are limited to the menus of the local Indian lunch joints, and Californian dishes with “oriental” flavors. Luckily, the visiting Indian grandmother agreed to teach me a few traditional homemade dishes.

Today we had our first hands-on lesson:
Stir-fried cauliflower
Chicken curry

I was about to get lost in the family’s well-organized spice cabinet (that takes up an entire floor-to-ceiling built-in closet), when my teacher showed me a tin box with a few spices that she uses in everyday cooking.

Clockwise from the top: cumin seed, ground cumin, turmeric, black mustard seed, asafetida, ground coriander; center, red chili powder.

Tadka, the traditional flavor base, is made of cumin, mustard and turmeric, cooked in olive oil.

1-1/2 cup yellow lentils

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp black mustard seed
2 tsp cumin seed
2 tsp ground turmeric
8 dried curry leaves
8 dried red chilies, with seeds, broken up
About 2 tsp (1-1/2 inch piece) jaggery (raw sugar)

2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped, to garnish

Cook lentils in pressure cooker with 3 cups water until very tender.

Heat oil in a pot. Add mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, curry leaves, red chilies, cooked lentils. Add water to make soup consistency, season with jaggery. Bring to boil, add chopped tomatoes, bring to boil again, serve, garnished with chopped cilantro.

Stir-fried cauliflower:

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp black mustard seed
2 tsp cumin seed
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp asafetida
2 cauliflowers, cut into bite-size pieces
4 fresh hot green chili peppers, with seeds
1 tsp salt

Heat oil in a large sauté pan. Add mustard seeds, heat until the seeds start to pop. Add cumin seed, turmeric, asafetida; add cauliflower, chilies, season with salt. Stir for a while, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, cook until soft and dry, stirring occasionally.

Chicken curry:
For the curry paste:
1 small bunch cilantro
1 small bunch mint
1 medium onion
4 large garlic cloves
3-inch piece of ginger
1 medium tomato
1 Tbsp black peppercorns
1 Tbsp cumin seed

Roughly chop all paste ingredients, combine in blender, blend into almost smooth paste. Remove paste from blender; rinse the blender container with cold water, save the rinsing water.

2 Tbsp olive oil
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into small pieces
1 Tbsp salt, or to taste
1 cup heavy cream

Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add curry paste, cook, stirring, until it starts to brown. Add chicken. Cook, stirring, until chicken pieces turn golden on all sides. Add 1-2 cups water from blender, scrape the pan to deglaze. Cook until the liquid thickens, 10-15 minutes. Taste, add salt. Stir in cream, cook 5 more minutes, serve over rice.

Menu today:

Chicken soup with wild rice and mushrooms

Stir fried cauliflower

Leek and potato frittata
Garlic green beans

Baked cod with tomatoes and bell peppers
Cannellini beans with kale and tomato

Chicken curry
White rice, flat bread (store-bought)

Cabbage rolls
Braised cabbage with caraway

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Location:San Francisco, CA