The California Dish

Food, like love, should be entered into with abandon, or not at all

Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year: Sun-dried Tomato Basil Cream Sauce & Clue

It was Mrs. White in the ballroom with the lead pipe!

Who doesn't love a good game of Clue? I have fond memories of pulling this game out of the closet as a young kid and trying desperately to figure out who did what and where before my sister sharked us all and correctly solved the crime! Recently, I was thrifting (my favorite hobby) and found a brand-new game for only 50 cents. I was super excited to see that Hasbro has upped the ante on their new release and included little three-dimensional characters to slide (or hop!) around the familiar game board.

Every Thursday night, for 2 years now, I have been hosting a weekly dinner party for a group of gals I am honored to call close friends. We laugh, we cry, we de-stress. We share, we connect, and we go deep. We feed our stomachs, our souls, and our guilty pleasure and (my!) ridiculous obsession with Fox's Fringe and Bones. In the best of times and the worst of times our weekly gatherings have remained a constant source of support and affection. Last night we ate Sun-dried Tomato Basil Cream Sauce and played Clue.

Every week plays out the same way. On Monday or Tuesday I decide on a dish to cook and send out a quick text with the details. As each gal RSVP's, I reply with an ingredient to bring. I figured out a long time ago that spreading out ingredients over 5 people is a lot easier on my pocketbook and it satisfies both my culinary creativity and everyone's stomach! It was the only way to do a weekly dinner party on a college budget and it works.

I have roasted chickens with rosemary tucked under their crispy skins, rolled out homemade gluten-free pasta, whirled pesto in the food processor for gourmet pizza, whisked melted chocolate and eggs into decadent brownies, and tested many gluten-free recipes on my obliging friends. Thursday nights are a good thing.

I was Mrs. Peacock, and I accused Professor Plum in the Conservatory!

This week I had a special request to make one of my classic and signature dishes: Sun-dried Tomato Basil Cream Sauce over pasta. I'm not even sure what defines a "signature dish," but this dish is one of my most-requested recipes. It is damn good and definitely worthy of a New Years Celebration!

Sun-dried Tomato & Basil Cream Sauce With Gluten-Free Rice Noodles

Eating in Italian Restaurants

Trying to eat Italian food in a restaurant is a big of a challenge for someone with a gluten intolerance, which is ironic because I hear that it's pretty easy to eat gluten-free in Italy. (They have one of the highest rates of Celiac disease in the world and now screen children at five years old for gluten intolerance. Awareness, acceptance, and accommodation are apparently normal in Italy now.) However, us Americans still have a way to go in learning how to accommodate those with food allergies.

When I do brave an Italian restaurant, I usually call ahead to find out if they have a gluten-free menu available. A phone call will tell you a lot about how knowledgeable and accommodating an establishment is. I often order sauces over a bed of polenta or steamed vegetables in place of pasta if gluten-free pasta is not available. I avoid chain restaurants because I find that the only gluten-free options are high-end grilled entrees like steak -- when everyone else expects to pay $10-14 for a bowl of spaghetti, I expect to spend $20-30 for a cuisine the restaurant doesn't specialize in. So, for the most part, I get my pasta fix at home (or in Thai Restaurants - Pad Thai! Yum!)

As a side note - if you live in the Grass Valley, California area, I can highly recommend a delicious Italian restaurant. Villa Venezia Restaurant is located in a peach-rouge Victorian house and owned by a delightful family. "Papa Pasta" visits every table and ensures you have everything you need, and they are very accommodating to those with food allergies. The prices are reasonable, the atmosphere is incomparable, and the food is incredible every single time I go there. 124 Bank Street. (530) 273-3555.

French & Italian Cream Sauce Basics

Cream sauces can be made in two ways - in the French roux style, or in the Italian heavy cream style. The French cream sauce is usually constructed using a roux, which is a mixture of 3 parts flour and 2 parts fat (usually butter or meat drippings). Roux is cooked in a sauce pan until the raw flour taste is gone. If you whisk cream (or a mixture of milk, half-n-half, or cream) into roux you have cream sauce. If you whisk milk or broth into a roux you have a lighter cream sauce or gravy.

Italians make cream sauce without flour, by cooking cream down until it gets thick and soupy. It is usually higher in fat, more expensive to make, and I don't think it keeps well if reheated the next day (the cream separates). Some American Italian restaurants use a roux cream sauce recipe, while others, like Villa Venezia, use only cream.

A Note on Buying Cream: Whipping or Heavy?

When you peruse your dairy section, you'll notice that there are two or three different kinds of cream available: Heavy Cream, Light Cream, and Whipping Cream. The difference is the fat content so flip the container around and look at the fat grams. I personally tend to use the lightest available (whipping cream) as it will have enough fat to create a smooth and thick sauce without making every bite drip with guilt. But really, who am I kidding? In case I haven't said this already, this is no diet sauce.

The Recipe: Sun-dried Tomato Basil Cream Sauce

3 Cloves of Garlic minced or finely chopped (you can use less, but this is surprisingly not an   overpowering amount)
Olive Oil (feel free to use oil from the sun-dried tomato jar--it's very flavorful!)
 3/4 Cup Julienned Sun-dried Tomatoes (oil-packed are more flavorful so use those in this recipe)
1 Pint Whipping Cream
1 Cup Shredded Parmesan Cheese
3/4 Cup Basil (loosely packed, sliced in thin chiffonade* pieces)
Sea Salt & Freshly Cracked Pepper 

*Chiffonade is a a technique for cutting herbs. Stack your basil leaves and roll them. Thinly slice your roll and little piles of basil chiffonade will tumble onto your cutting board.

1. In a small, stainless steel saute pan drizzle about 1-2 tablespoons olive oil and heat to medium. Add minced garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes (be careful not to let garlic burn). Turn heat down to low-medium and add sun-dried tomatoes to pan. Let them soften and gently heat through so their flavor starts to release into the pan, about 2 minutes.

2. Add whipping cream and raise heat to medium. You need to watch this sauce and you want the temperature to come to a slight simmer so that the cream will reduce and condense without burning. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon.

3. After about five minutes, the sauce will start to reduce and turn a slight pink color from the tomatoes. Cook for an additional 3-5 minutes. Trust your instincts here. You can't really ruin this sauce by undercooking it (it will just be thinner), but you can ruin it by burning it so be careful to stir. Taste the sauce and note the texture, consistency, and flavor. If it has any hint of raw cream flavor, keep cooking. If the sauce tastes like the sun-dried tomatoes have made love to the cream, it's done.

4. When the cream has reduced, add the basil and stir. Sprinkle the cheese over the sauce while stirring and turn the heat off. When the cheese has fully melted and incorporated into the cream, it is time to taste. Parmesan cheese can be salty, so you want to taste and season after you add it. I think I add about 1/2-1 teaspoon salt (but this will depend on the cheese you use). One or two quick twists of freshly cracked pepper are enough.

I toss this sauce over gluten-free brown rice pasta. I like Tinkyada Brown Rice pasta - it's not mushy! You can also drizzle this over chicken, vegetables, or dip chunks of bread into it as an appetizer. It's rich, so I would serve it with a leafy salad, or along with vegetables. Enjoy!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dancing with Gluten Free Girl and the Chef

Learning to dance is a lot like learning to cook. When I was a kid, I used to “dance” with my Dad in the kitchen on commercial breaks while our air popper exploded kernels of white perfection.
We used to sing “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys but with our own lyrics—Pop, Pop, Papop. Pop, Pop, Papop. Pop the corn. You got me rockin’ and a reelin’, rockin’ and reelin’ Popcorn! It wasn’t until just a few years ago, years after I had grown up and heard Barbara Ann apart from my father many times, that I realized that the Beach Boys weren’t actually singing about popcorn. As we danced, I would hop onto my dad’s toes and he would lift me around in circles, keeping time to the off-key, personalized lyrics we sang as a part of our popcorn making ritual. It was as ridiculous and special as it probably sounds to you.

Learning to eat gluten free was a similar experience. For a long while I stood on the sidelines humming along with the music of allergy-friendly cooking, checking out every possible library book I could find on the subject, and desperately trying to figure out how to become fluent in the language of flours with names like teff, potato starch, quinoa, and brown rice. For a long time I felt like I was dancing with two left feet, albeit passionately dancing with two left feet, but still not quite mastering the art of creating food that I could eat that wouldn’t make me lose all love for the culinary arts. My feet would tap in rhythm with the recipes I would read, but when it came right down to actually giving it a go on the dance floor myself, I felt as awkward as Steve Urkel.

Until I stumbled upon Gluten Free Girl’s blog. Gluten Free Girl's Blog
I’m sure everyone writing a post similar to mine feels obligated to share their anecdotal story about how and why they began following Shauna & her husband (whose name I still have a hard time remembering because Shauna so frequently and affectionately refers to him as simply “The Chef”), but mine is rather simple really. One day I knew nothing of her, and the next I was hooked. My attitude changed after “meeting” Shauna.

As most of her followers, I have been eagerly anticipating the publication of her cookbook, Gluten Free Girl and the Chef:  A Love Story with 100 Tempting Recipes, and jumped at the chance to get a sneak peak at a couple of her recipes ahead of schedule.

Shauna sent me four recipes: Seared Shrimp with Garlic-Almond Sauce; Gluten-free Pasta; Pasta with Anchovies, Lemon, and Olives; and Chocolate-Peanut Butter Brownies. And oh boy are they good.

What immediately struck me about the recipes that Shauna sent me is that combined they meet a certain set of criteria I try to meet when I give a cooking demo: a recipe that people really want (a gluten-free cooking/baking secret!); a naturally gluten-free recipe; and something that you can serve to anyone without having to preface it with “I’m on a special diet….”  She gave me a recipe I REALLY wanted – Gluten-free pasta. I’ve attempted home-made gluten-free pasta several times and in one word, it sucked! Shrimp are naturally gluten free and those Brownies are little pieces of heaven in your mouth.

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Brownies

If you still make brownies out of a box (or did before you went gluten free) you are seriously missing something. The recipe doesn’t seem too different than the one I usually make with a flour substitution or two and the addition of peanut butter. You slowly melt chocolate and a whole stick of butter over simmering water until it resembles liquid velvet. Then there’s some sifting, whisking, and pouring before you draw your knife through globs of peanut butter to create swirls; it is reminiscent of cheesecake technique. The finished product is rich and all my tasters said they would have never known they were gluten free. The recipe suggested slicing them in half and spooning jam for Peanut butter and Jelly brownies, which sounds clever, but they were already so sweet and rich that I didn’t want to send myself into a sugar coma. My only critique of the recipe was the description of unsweetened chocolate – does that mean those unsweetened Baker’s chocolate squares? If I want to use one of those gourmet bars, what percentage can I get away with? I went for a 60% Cocoa Ghiradelli’s Chocolate bar and there were no complaints!

 Seared Shrimp with Garlic-Almond Sauce

I really wish I had taken a picture of this masterpiece because it was so ridiculously simple and so good. As I read the recipe description – a sauce that someone wants an entire vat of so they can eat their way out? – I was intrigued. The recipe has a short ingredient list: Shrimp, Marcona almonds, and Olive Oil.
I was impressed with the side notes and details that Shauna and the Chef included. I probably would have tried to cut corners by using a less expensive almond instead of the Marcona, salt slicked, almonds that they recommend which set me back $6.11 for one cup. But the Chef anticipated this and urged me not to. When people really understand food and ingredients they’re honest with you about which you can skimp on and which are necessities. I felt confident following his advice. The sauce was rich – something that could easily be served at a high-class wedding in San Francisco – but it was simple to make and I began dreaming of different ways to use it. Over pasta, drizzled over roasted or grilled asparagus, as a crudités sauce, mixed with a splash of Balsamic vinegar for a unique dipping sauce, or in a vat that I could swim out of. I want to keep playing with it.

Gluten-Free Pasta
I was most excited to play with this recipe and dust off (literally) my old pasta machine. I inherited my Grandmother’s old stand mixer which has no paddle attachment and does not do well with dough.

After watching the yellow dough creep up the beaters, I coaxed it out of the bowl and began mixing and kneading it by hand. Just a few turns on a cutting board to get the ingredients fully incorporated. This is, after all, how Italians make pasta, but I was worried that the texture wouldn’t turn out. Sometimes your backed into a corner (wishing again for the Kitchen Aid stand mixer) and you have to make do. The texture was fine, but I found myself adding more potato starch when I rolled it on the machine to keep it from sticking. You also need to add a little potato starch to get it to roll out thinly.
I was surprised to see both guar gum and xanthan gum in the recipe and would have liked to know why the combination. I loved the flavor and would have liked to spend a little more time rolling it thinner as pasta always cooks thicker and some of my tasters thought it was a little chewy. I can’t wait to make Ravioli! :
Pasta with Anchovies, Lemon, and Olives
Let’s get this out of the way: I served this at a dinner party and had a back up plan (pesto!) for the non-anchovy eaters (a vegetarian, a vegan, and a gal with the palette of five year old). I was captivated by the description: “indelible taste of the Mediterranean, indolent summer warmed by the sun.”
So I gave anchovies a go and I had two adventurous people to try it with me. All three of us liked it, but probably wouldn’t have ordered it in a restaurant (unless we were in another country and trying to get the flavor of the local cuisine!) The sauce was a classic sauté of shallots, garlic, chopped olives, anchovies, and capers. A little white wine to deglaze the pan, a few herbs, nuts, butter, and toss into a bowl of homemade pasta. I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. I watched a one year old maneuver pieces of pasta into her mouth and marveled at her sophisticated palette. A solid dish. Worthy of a restaurant special. The technique in the dish spurs creativity for other dishes.

I can't wait to get my hands on this book - I already have plans to dog ear these recipes!

It's available anywhere fine books are sold, but here's the link to Amazon's website:

Dishing it up in California,

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Thanks for dropping by The California Dish! I'm so glad you've come to visit.

You'll have to imagine that I've just moved and have boxes stacked up around me and many, many empty cupboards beckoning me to fill them.

That's a little how I feel about this blog. I'm not quite settled into the blogging world yet, but I hope to be very, very soon. And, I have lots of things to say....just trying to figure out where it will all fit best! :)

In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you'd like to see published in this space! Drop me a comment, say hello, and if you have any blogging experience and want to swap an amazing meal for an evening of your time, I'm totally game!

I'm hoping to be up and rolling by the beginning of July. 

Dishin' it up,