Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer Time in Tuscany

The Gourmet Girlfriends gathered at my home on a warm Sunday afternoon / evening in July.  I had decided on an Italian-themed summer menu that would show off some of the cooking skills I’d picked up while living in Tuscany, as well as allow us to spend time together outdoors in the garden. My basic philosophy about cooking is: less is more. By that I mean less cooking time means more time to spend chatting, catching up with friends, and sipping Prosecco!
We started the evening with antipasti: bresaola stuffed with fresh ricotta and arugula; endive topped with mascarpone cheese and toasted walnuts; aged peccorino cheese and fresh pears; and prosciutto e melone. We sat pool side happily chatting, sipping, and eating antipasti, and then promptly declared ourselves full! Well…, I still had a kitchen full of food to be prepared for our primo and secondo courses, as well as contorni e dolci, so I decided it was time for a field trip to see my newly planted herb garden!

The 20-second “hike” around the pool to the herb planter was enough to restore our appetites (did I say this is a group of ladies that can really eat?).
We began the meal with our pasta course, spaghetti alla caprese, which is a wonderful no-cook summer pasta dish. Just combine fresh tomatoes, fresh buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, a hint of garlic and salt, add hot cooked spaghetti and top with fresh basil. The result is a light and refreshing pasta version of the classic caprese salad (named after a dish first popularized on the island of Capri).
After our primo course, we took a moment for some impromptu olive oil tasting (I had brought back a small assortment of artiginal olive oils from my last trip to Tuscany).  We discussed the various flavors and, for the uninitiated, I spent some time extolling the virtues of first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil above all others.  We shared tips for finding the best olive oil at great prices, and debated whether (besides the price) there was a real difference between good Spanish and good Italian olive oil (especially now that Italy imports a lot of its olives from Spain!).
But enough talk about oil, time for more food! Earlier we had fired up the grill and prepped our main course, spiedini of marinated chicken breast alternated with homemade (by my butcher, not me) hot Italian sausage. Along with the spiedini, we prepared a Sicilian orange salad with red onions and olives, assorted roasted vegetables (red, yellow, and green bell peppers; asparagus; eggplant; red onion) and, a classic Tuscan staple, roasted potatoes with rosemary and garlic. This was all accompanied by copious amounts of a Badia di Coltibuono Chianti Classico Reserva.
Now we were really stuffed…, some of us even tried to beg off dessert, but we were past the point of no return and my solution was to serve vin santo and cantucci (a/k/a biscotti di Prato), a classic and traditional Tuscan dessert of crunchy almond cookies dipped into a delicious golden colored dessert wine.  The second wind created by the cantucci and vin santo allowed me to bring out our second “light dessert” (hah!) of assorted gelati e sorbetti  with mixed frutti di bosco (seasonal berries).  From there we descended into a silent torpor… also known as a food coma.
We’d started at 5pm and it was now about 10:30pm… a marathon of cooking, eating, and drinking in true GG style. The point of my menu was to transport us to summer time in Italy, spending time together, and enjoying some easy to prepare dishes. When the weather cools off we can tackle some of the more complex and hearty offerings from the Tuscan kitchen.
About Susan: 
I was born in New Orleans, LA, but have lived in Los Angeles since the tender age of 6 months, so I consider myself a Californian.  My style of cooking reflects the laid-back lifestyle of year-round sunshine and living close to the ocean, so I’m as likely to throw things on a grill as whip up my family’s killer secret recipe gumbo. Like most Angelenos, I grew up eating Mexican food and enjoy preparing homemade guacamole, tacos, enchiladas, and margaritas with fresh lime juice. My second “spiritual home” is Italy, and I really learned to cook while living, studying, and working there in my early twenties. I return to Italy at least twice a year and the infinite variety of regional Italian cooking is what continues to draw me back and inspire my palate.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sunday at Srila's

What do tamarind, cumin seed and cilantro have in common?  All key ingredients to lucious Indian cooking, Srila style.

The Gourmet Girlfriends gathered at Srila's last Sunday.  After toasting the survival of the summer with Prosecco (somehow Prosecco has become our drink of choice), we began with a homamade (of course) pear chutney spiced with fennel and sweet paprika, slathered onto crisp crackers and topped with a slice of creamy brie or  rich Manchego while Srila whipped up a piquant potato chaat.  Chaat is a street food. This one consisted of sweet and Russet potatoes boiled, cubed and sauted then topped with a tamarind chutney yogurt and seasoningus including black salt.  We also nibbled on Bhel Puri, a crispy melange of lentil crackers, puffed rice and chrisp noodles tossed with garbanzo beans and tamarind and green chutney.

The first course was a tender salmon filet that had marinated for hours in a spicy bath then simmered gently in a flavorful curry broth.  Srila also made buttery (actually ghee -y) dal from yellow mung beans, which are sort of a mild lentil.  She served paneer, which is actually a mild cheesy milk curd, almost tofu in consistenc,y that she cubed and bathed in  a yogurt spice sauce then broiled.

The second course was butter chicken, which is actually tandoori chicken, marinated overnight served in a buttery spicy tomato sauce, and  Japanese eggplants braised with chilis, other spices and more tamarind chutney until they melted in our mouths. Since we live in LA and must represent, Srila reduced the butter in the butter chicken.

Now some people think Indian food is heavy or firey hot.  Srila's food was as light as the beautiful turquoise silk top she was wearing.  The spices were complex but not overwhelming.  I went back for thirds (shh!) and still had room for dessert!

Dessert was a rice pudding with slivered almonds, raisins and just the teeniest hint of cardomon, fresh canteloupe melon so sweet it squeaked, and fresh mint tea.  And because Jane's birthday was the day before, the GG's surprised her with a fudgy chocolate cake. 

Srila's Tips:

The most flavorful, tender and aromatic rice is Tilda rice. It comes in a huge blue and white plastic bag and you can buy it at most Indian or Middle Eastern stores.

About Srila:

I was born in Mumbai and raised mostly in Dehli.  In my family,  food was core to eating together, while having conversations, arguments, discussions or just idle chatter. There would always be room for more people at the table, in fact the more the merrier. We shared our parent's passion for good food whether it was the amazing variety of Indian cuisines or others from around the world. My family would sit together at every meal, starting with breakfast and ending with dinner, either at the dining table or the den, and in the cool evenings we would sit in the garden inhaling the fragrance of seasonal flowers along with tantalizing aromas wafting from the kitchen finally making its way to us. 
I never cooked Indian food, well for that matter I never cooked in India unless it was baking desserts, until I moved to Los Angeles with my husband. I recall the first time we longed to eat our comfort food, I went to the only Indian grocery store in West Los Angeles and with utter dismay I couldn’t figure out what our Indian spices looked like or their names. I called a friend who literally walked me through it and I was able to make our first Indian meal, which was sub-par. And so the gastronomical journey began for me and it has spread beyond just Indian cuisine to south-east Asian, Korean, Chinese, Moroccan, and Spanish.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Welcome to the Global Feast, a celebration of world cuisine and friendship.

Started by Jane, who calls no place and every place home (not an army brat but close), and Susan who has serious travel lust, Global Feast is a celebration of world cuisine.  Founded six months ago, the Global Feast offers a monthly foray into the secrets of cooking around the world, brought to you by people who grew up eating it. We are seven "global gourmet girlfriends", the GG's for short, each from a different part of the world, who enjoy tasting the world! 

Arlene's a New York City girl with roots in Jamaica. 
Chantal's from a vineyard in France. 
Jane now lives at her 22nd address; this one's in L. A.
Laura, a French citizen,  is perpetually gripped by the desire to be elsewhere. 
Shushan was born in Armenia.
Srila grew up in India.
Susan, a Californian with New Orleans roots and an Italian soul

America is a melting pot and the best part are the ingredients, the world flavors that create such an incredible diversity of dining experiences, and the people who brought them.  Join us as we share, simmer and savor together!