Make me cheese, please!

"You can't make good cheese out of bad milk," says Collette at the "Brie and Bubbly" seminar at the Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma last weekend. We knew this already, since the day before, we were on a farm tour of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese near Tomales Bay. Their herd manager explained how the flavor and quality of feed creates flavor and quality in the milk. The best feed for cows is grass pasture; Point Reyes Farmstead is nestled among acres of lush verdant fields which are organically and sustainably farmed. The fresh pure milk comes right from the milk barn into the creamery where it is made into award-winning Point Reyes Blue cheese and Toma, a buttery semi hard table cheese with a texture like Havarti.
"Farmstead" means one farm raises the dairy cows, milks them and makes the cheese. In this way, the cheesemaker can be assured that the cows and milk are are handled properly. Point Reyes Farmstead's 300 cows munch happily on the rolling emerald hills most of the time, but were in the barn while we were there due to rain. Each cow has a name, a tag, and a detailed computer record of every facet of her life, from the carefully mixed supplemental feed formulated by a nutritionist, to her milk production and health history. One can see that Point Reyes takes extra care in their procedures as all the facilities are immaculate. I was impressed with their commitment to organics and sustainability. For example, manure creates methane that is captured and burned in a generator to supply 60% of the creamery's electricity needs. Also, the Giacomini family signed over development rights to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which will ensure the land will remain farmland in perpetuity.
We were fortunate to taste the result of their attention to detail with a seven course cheese dinner created by chef and author John Ash (named "Father of Wine Country Cuisine") assisted by three of the Giacomini family's four daughters. We had meaty fried green olives stuffed with Point Reyes blue cheese, fluffy potato croquettes with Point Reyes Toma and Romesco sauce, bitter and sweet radicchio soup with a melty spoonful of Point Reyes Mozzarella, a salad with grilled beef, fried capers and sliced garlic with shaved Point Reyes Toma, a delectable cheese plate with all their selections--including a taste of a yet-to-be released blue cheese and ice cream made with their top quality milk.

Saturday was seminar day with choices like "California's Rare Beauties", "The Wonderful World Of Mold" and "A Day In The Life Of A Cheesemaker". Among other opportunities, we were able to taste some cheese normally not available to the public--like Andante Dairy's Tim's Cheese, a ripe semi-soft cheese made only for the exclusive (and out of my price range) French Laundry, recipient of a coveted 3 star rating from the Michelin Guide.

Compiled from information from the the Artisan Cheese Festival and all the speakers, especially the lively and knowledgable Colette Hatch (named "Madame de Fromage"), below is a guide explaining the different types of cheese. Cheese can be grouped by texture: fresh, soft ripened, semi-soft and hard or how they are made: with penicillium roqueforti, by stretching the curd, by washing the rind or by adding other ingredients. Cheeses in the last five categories of method or ingredients could also be categorized under the first four texture categories. Click the name of any artisanal cheese that interests you for the website--you can order most cheeses online from the producer.

Fresh, Farmer Or Pot Cheese:
Milk is curdled through acidification and/or addition of rennet or bacteria and usually aged to develop flavor. If it is not aged, it has a soft texture and a fresh cream flavor. Fresh cheese is highly perishable, so it should be eaten with in two to three days.  If you have never tried cottage cheese fresh from a creamery, rather than packaged and from your grocery store you are in for a big treat! The difference is like the difference between a juicy, flavorful homegrown tomato and a hard, unripe one from a chain produce store. This category includes cottage cheese, mascarpone, ricotta (once again a completely different taste experience when it is direct from creamery), chevre, feta, paneer and cream cheese. Artisanal cheese at the Festival included the light and fluffy Foggy Morning from Nicasio Valley.

Soft-Ripened Cheese:
This cheese is ripened from the outside in and usually has an edible, bumpy exterior that is created by spraying the surface of the cheese with penicillium candid, a type of mold. The "blooming rind" is usually white but can have red, brown or orange flecks. The interior is gooey at room temperature.  The most common soft-ripened cheeses have a white, bloomy rind that is sometimes flecked with red or brown.  This category includes brie, camembert, and triple crèmes (so called because they contain at least 72% butterfat. Artisanal cheese at the Festival included the fabulous Marin Rouge et Noir Brie which was the first American brie to win over the French in the 2005 World Cheese Awards, one of my all-time favorite cheeses Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery, and the elegantly perfect Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove Chevre.

Semi-soft or Semi-hard Cheese:
Usually called “semi-soft”, this cheese is smooth and creamy with little or no rind. The texture is like pasta--both firm and soft--but the flavor can range from mild to strong. This category includes Monterey Jack (an American original), blue cheese, colby, fontina, havarti and tomme. Some have washed rinds (see below). Artisanal cheese at the Festival included Point Reyes Farmstead Toma and Pennyroyal Farm Tomme washed with Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale which is not yet available to the public. The cheesemaker is working with Navarro Vineyards in establishing a creamery in conjunction with a new 7.5 acre vineyard and winery being built in Boonville.

Firm or Hard Cheese:
The largest number of cheeses are firm. Their flavor range is vast, from mild as fresh cheese to very stinky. In general, they can be grated and melted. This category of cheese includes the majority of cheddars, gouda, Swiss cheese, Gruyere, some tome and Parmesan. Artisanal cheese at the Festival included the unique Beehive Cheese Barely Buzzed which is rubbed with Turkish coffee and lavendar and Fiscalini's bandage-wrapped Cheddar.

Blue Cheeses
Penicillium roqueforti mold grows on cheese and creates blue/gray veins throughout.  Blue cheese can be mild or extremely pungent and/or salty. The texture can vary from soft to hard. In France, the original Roquefort is made from sheep's milk and the mold naturally occurs in the local caves where the cheese is aged. The strongly flavored English Stilton is made with cow's milk and the saltier Italian Gorgonzola from cow and/or goat milk. California's only blue cheese producer Point Reyes Farmstead makes their cheese from the milk of their Holstein cows. Artisanal cheese at the Festival included Point Reyes Farmstead Blue and the sweet and fruity Caveman Blue from Rogue Creamery.

Pasta Filata Cheese:
"Pasta filata”cheese is made from cooked and kneaded or stretched curd.  This category of cheese can range from very soft to hard and includes Mozzarella, Provolone, and Scamorza. There was a seminar on hand-pulling Mozzarella that we could not attend.

Natural Rind Cheese:
Often made from raw milk, natural rind cheese rind develops without molds, bacteria or washing (though bacteria and mold may attach to the outside air). This cheese category encompasses Tomme, the English blue cheese Stilton, and English Lancashire. Artisanal cheese at the Festival included the dreamy Pluvius from Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese.

Washed Rind Cheeses
Washing a cheese with brine, wine, ale or local spirits breaks down the curd on the outside. The rind becomes thick and part of the cheese rather than a skin on the outside of it. The thick rind helps keep moisture and flavor inside. These cheeses often have a mild, smooth interior that contrasts with the pungent rind. This category includes some Tomme, Raclette, Taleggio and Manchester. Artisanal cheese at the Festival included the pungent crowd-pleasing Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery (all thier cheeses are outstanding) and Garden Variety Cheese's Basque-style Moonflower.

Processed Cheeses
Many American commercial cheeses are “processed” by adding stabilizers, emulsifiers, and flavors (sometimes chemical) to create inexpensive cheese that lasts a long time. Processed cheese includes American Cheese, the orange-colored gunk they pour on fast food nachos, and “cheese flavored” spreads. These are the antithesis of homestead, artisanal cheeses.

Read here about the Artisanal Cheese Festival 2009.


A Day Of Food And Sharing

Redolent of star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel and Schezuan peppercorn, Chef Skip's Master Sauce simmered in its dark orange cast iron pot. The liquid is opaque brown, thick with flavor, skimmed with a sheen of oil, intended to please the palate and nose and satisfy the soul.  Master Sauce is the basis of "red cooking" in Chinese cuisine: the technique of braising meats in this complex sauce for many hours to imbue the meat with seasoning while lending some of the flavor of the meat to the sauce. After cooking, the sauce is cooled, strained then stored (up to five days in the refrigerator or frozen in the freezer) to be used again and again. As the sauce ages, it becomes more complex from the ingredients it has cooked. Master Sauces can be decades in the making--Chef Skip's is around 30 years old! He used the sauce as a base for barbecue basting of chicken and pork for Friday's cocktail hour nibbles. He slow-cooked tri-tip in it until the meat was flaking apart, then stuffed it into Chinese-style burritos along with a vinegary red cabbage slaw and simple pinquinto beans (an heirloom pinto bean from Santa Maria, CA) and sliced grilled vegetables for our lunch on Saturday.  He marinated beef skewers in Master Sauce, sesame oil and cilantro for one of the many dishes in our Saturday night feast.

The occasion was "Kitchen, Notebook, Memory: A Writing Retreat Inspired by the Five Senses" that Chef Skip hosted with Chris deLorenzo our writing coach trained in the Amherst writer's method. Held at Chef Skip's lovely home with an awesome chef's kitchen, the workshop was built around the interface between writing and food. Not only did we have the chance to pitch in and help in the kitchen with dinner prep under the Chef's tutelage, but Chris had prepared some food experiences to inspire our writing. Since this was my first participation in a writing workshop, I was apprehensive about feeling inadequate or unprepared. But the Amherst method is based on the group and leader providing only affirmative feedback. All references to the writer and writings are framed as comments on the "narrator's voice" and "the work" rather than judging the individual. Chris is a nurturing and supportive guide and the participants were congenial, so there was nothing intimidating about the situation. With numerous published authors, fiction writers, cookbook writers and editors attending, it was a treat to listen to the wide range of writing styles in the group. Chris would give us a prompt, then give us 20 minutes or so to write. We'd rejoin the circle to read our creations and share what we liked about particular aspects of "the work".
One prompt was the 5 tastes: bitter, salty, sweet, sour and spicy. We were each given a small cup containing a sample of each taste: bitter--cilantro, salty--salt, sweet--sugar, sour--Chinese black vinegar, spicy--Szechuan black pepper. We were instructed to taste each with utmost concentration on all our 5 senses, then use the experience to inform our writing. Later, at the blissful Shiatsu Rincon, I was describing the retreat to my acupuncturist, John Hickey, one of the founders of the Santa Barbara College of Oriental Medicine (SBCOM), where he taught and served as the academic vice president from 1985 until 2001. He explained the connection between the 5 tastes and the 5 elements in Chinese cosmology:
Fire -- Bitter
Water -- Salty
Earth -- Sweet
Wood  -- Sour
Metal -- Pungent (spicy)

The Saturday night dinner was an explosion of flavors. We had delectable pad thai cooked by two of our cooking experts, including Asian-food chef Joyce Jue who has written numerous cookbooks and leads international culinary tours), a panang-style curry, crispy fusion slaw filled with fresh fruit chunks that serveds as the perfect foil for a hot and spicy jalapeno/garlic/poppyseed dressing, marinated beef skewers (as described above), crunchy almond cookies and to-die-for Cheremoya sorbet from a recipe Chef Skip developed for a friend and client. Chef Skip was a friend of Julia Child's and inherited her cat, who meowed pitifully to be let out, then meowed pitifully to be let back in and delighted us by poking her nose into our gift bags.
There are probably thousands of Master Sauce recipes and each will change over time as different ingredients are used. If you are fortunate enough to take a cooking class with Chef Skip, you will come away replete with delicious food and with a packet of recipes in your hand. I found one recipe published online from TV personality Andrew Zimmern that can get yours started (no bugs or worms in his recipe, thank goodness).

One-Pot Chinese Chicken Wings with Master Sauce:
By Andrew Zimmern on Mon, 02/04/2008 - 17:33 "This is a quick and easy wing recipe. Perfect for any sort of party, but I like it for a Chinese New Year celebration! Try it out with my Black Bean Spareribs with Green Onions [see photo] or Floating Dragon Dumplings recipes."
* 32 very large chicken drummies, or 2-joint segments work well
* 1⁄2 c sake
* 1⁄3 c water
* 6 large thin slices fresh ginger
* 1⁄3 c soy sauce
* 1⁄4 c Chinese yellow rock sugar
* 2 dried hot chiles
* 2 T oyster sauce
* 2 T hoisin sauce
* 2 clv star anise
* 1 cinnamon stick
Place a 14 inch no stick saute pan over high heat. Add the chicken and dry-sear to lightly brown the chicken. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer,
Cook, covered, for about 10 minutes. Uncover, and simmer until pan is almost “dry”, tossing frequently to coat wings. Skim off fat if you like…and serve, garnishing with scallion shavings and sesame seeds.


Californians Scramble For Potassium Iodine -- Natural Source In Seaweed

Blessed by natural beauty and cursed with the threat of earthquakes, floods and wildfires, California is often in the national and international news. Currently, we're receiving press for the plume of radiation supposedly streaming across the Pacific from Japan. An absurd article in the New York Times (here) asserts: "This is a part of the world where people accept — perhaps even secretly enjoy — the reality that they may be living on the edge of disaster." No. We're not thrilled by the threat of disaster; we accept the risk because the payoff is tremendous: so many diverse places to visit within easy driving distance (Yosemite, Death Valley, San Francisco, Palm Springs, Baja, Big Sur...), a tolerant and easy-going (mostly) population, perfect weather (in Central and Southern California) and great food (fresh fruit and vegetables year round). And, no, we are not "hardy" as the article suggests. We are actually very sensitive to our environment and physical state, always concerned about health, getting enough exercise, eating healthfully...so the threat of nuclear contamination has most of us concerned. Those who hadn't already stocked up on supplies to be ready for the earthquake are now doing so in preparation for contaminated food supply (here). Potassium iodine is sold out at most stores (here) as Californian let fear vanquish reason. Tablets are sold out even though the Center for Disease Control says they only provide 24 hours of protection and the FDA admonishes that a dose "works best if used within 3-4 hours of exposure", plus anyone over 40 should not take it. Potassium iodine doesn't block radiation from entering the body or stop damage to cells outside the thyroid; it only "fills" the thyroid with iodine so ionizing iodine from radiation particles won't enter the thyroid. As of now, there is no detectable radiation in California from Japan (here). Put all this together--no radiation, potassium iodine only works well within a short period of time and is contraindicated for adults--the conclusion is to not be concerned.

But, we are Californians and so we turn to sea vegetables, a natural source of potassium iodine that are healthy and nutritious with no side effects. We're stocking up on Japanese food--nori, kelp, seagrass and miso (read scientific study on miso here) My friend Nicky, who owns Potent Sea with her husband Chris, is working around the clock to get a new batch of Sea Vegetables ready by next Thursday. You can bet I have my order in.


A Wonderful Gala Of Gourmet Dining and Lovely Operatic Singing

The invitation promised "a wonderful Gala of Gourmet Dining and lovely Operatic Singing". And it was! Frederick and Diane Sidon have been avid supporters of Opera Santa Barbara as well as a patron for many cultural events around town. With Gabriella Schooley, the hard-working President of the Italian Cultural Heritage Foundation, they hosted a magnificent banquet last weekend at the La Cumbre Country Club in honor of Italy's 150th Anniversary. The menu was based on 1860s banquet menus provided by the City of Turin's Anniversary Committee and included a lovely "Salmone in crosta con spinach beurre blanc": salmon and spinach in croute with beurre blank sauce which was displayed by the chef prior to service. Sadly, I didn't catch her name, but was delighted to savor her cuisine, which included a cheese plate with a trio of Italian cheeses that must have been flown over for the occasion: the delectable Toma delle Langhe (Langhe is a region of the Piedmont of Italy) which is a deep straw-colored cow's milk cheese with a soft center and chewy rind--like a Brie, Raschera--a slightly salty cow's milk cheese from Cuneo in the Piedmont, and a creamy Gorgonzola, the most famous cheese of the region. The red wine pairing was a robust and full flavored 2008 Barbera di Monferrato.
I'm currently tasting the 2007 Pelissero Barbera D'Alba which hits all the right notes for Barbera (IMHO): opaque ruby color, with a nose of fertile Piedmontese soil and ripe fruit, and a mouth full of black berries, black plum, and black cherry with a zing of acidity. Before I took the wine class last semester, I didn't realize that Barbera was a grape as well as a place. I knew Nebbiolo  is made into Barbaresco and Barolo and thought that Sangiovese was used for all the other major Italian wines like Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello, "Super Tuscan" blends, AND Barbera--but no, it is a separate varietal is is actually the most planted grape in the Piedmont. It is more popular locally than internationally, perhaps because, without the tannins of Nebbiolo, it does not cellar long and is best enjoyed young. Americans are most familiar with the towns of Alba (Barbera d'Alba) and Asti (Barbera d'Asti), but the two DOCG regions (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantitia--the highest level of designation of quality in the Italian system) are Asti and Montferrato.
From a recent dinner, chez moi, with great company and two terrific wines: 2007 Forgeron Chardonnay and 2003 Paradise Ridge Rockpile Vineyard Merlot:
use the sauce from this recipe and serve with rye bread.
12 Savoy cabbage leaves (about half a head)
2 Tbsp. butter + extra for greasing muffin tin
1/2 cup minced onion
1 Tbsp. garlic (about 3 cloves) minced
1 tsp. basil
1/2 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. marjoram
1 cup dry kasha (buckwheat groats)
2 eggs, used separately
2 cups broth--either vegetable or chicken broth
1 bay leaf
4 oz. Gruyere--cut into 1 oz. chunks
1/4 cup or so of minced parsley
Cut the leaves off the head of Savoy cabbage and separate carefully so they don't tear. Boil enough water in a pot to cook the cabbage (about 2 quarts). When the water boils, put in the cabbage leaves and blanch for just a couple minutes so the stem is softened but the leaves are not falling apart. Place in a colander in the sink, rinse with cool water to stop them from cooking further, drain well and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the kasha and drain. Beat one egg in a small bowl, add the kasha and mix thoroughly. Heat a cast iron or non-stick pan and dry-fry the kasha (no oil or butter), chopping up any clumps as the kasha cooks. The goal is to cook a thin layer of egg around each grain of kasha, keeping the grains separate (do not skip this step or you will end up with mushy kasha).

Put the broth and bay leaf into a large pot and bring to a boil, then add the kasha and turn the heat down to low and simmer uncovered until the liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally. In the meantime, melt the butter in a saucepan and cook the onion, garlic, and spices over low heat until onions are translucent. Put the cooked kasha and onion mixture in a large bowl and mix. Let cool. Mix the second egg in a small bowl, add to the kasha mixture and stir together.

Grease four of the holes in a large muffin tin with butter.  Put a cabbage leaf in each hole, then use the extra leaves to fill in so the Savoy will line the muffin tin hole with enough left to cover the top when done. Fill each cabbage leaf halfway with the kasha mixture, then place the Gruyere chunk in the center. Fill the rest of the cabbage with the kasha mixture, folding over the Savoy cabbage leaves and packing it down so the top is level with the top of the muffin tin. Bake for 20 minutes.

Carefully put a (unheated) cookie sheet on top of the muffin tin, then quickly turn it over so the stuffed cabbage ends upside down on the cookie sheet. Spoon a fourth of the sauce on the bottom of each serving plate, then use a spatula to center a stuffed cabbage on each plate, sprinkle with minced parsley. Serves 4.


Spain: Land Of Rioja

Now that staterooms are filling up for our Mediterranean Wine Cruise, I'm starting to look into the ports we'll explore. Our adventure begins (and comes to a conclusion) in Barcelona, noted for Gaudi's architecture, the art of Dali and Miro, and great food! I've never visited Spain, and look forward to dining there as some of my favorite restaurants in California feature Spanish tapas. We covered Spain in my Culinary Arts class, so here are some notes on the culinary history and traditions of Spain:

Situated between the rest of Europe, Italy and Northern Africa, Spain is at the crossroads of many cultures; her food reflects the diversity of influences that have ebbed and flowed throughout history. Around 200 B.C., the Holy Roman Empire annexed Spain, introducing garlic, wheat, olives and grapes, which are now integral to Spanish cuisine. Spain is the third largest wine producer in the world. Fortified wines such as port and sherry are historically well known, with Rioja, Tempranillo and Monastrell growing in international popularity. Cava is Spain's sparkling wine made in the Champagne style, but with native grapes suited to the sunnier climate: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello, instead of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.

In 711 A.D., Moors crossed the Mediterranean Sea (just 9 miles at the shortest distance) from North Africa to began their conquest, bringing oranges, lemons, almonds, dates, raisins, rice, eggplant, figs, nutmeg, saffron, honey and olive oil. Spanish foods that show the Moorish influence include cumin chicken, sopa de ajo (garlic soup) and polvorones (almond cookies). In the 1400s, explorers from the New World brought tomato, corn, potato, sweet peppers and chocolate. Tomatoes are essential in contemporary Spanish cooking--and celebrating! The Tomatina Festival in Buñol, Valencia turns the town into one big blob of tomato puree with a 'food fight' involving 40,000 people and 110 tons of tomatoes. Sofrito is a lovely condiment to have on hand. A mixture of tomatoes, garlic and onion, it can be eaten with breads and soups as well as form the base for stews and sauces (see recipe below).

In the early years, Spanish shepherds and nomads cooked over a fire in a single pot, braising meat and vegetables. Before modern prosperity, livestock was tough from hard-scrabble existence in the dry interior lands, so slow cooking was imperative for softening the meat. With over 3,000 miles of coastline, fresh seafood has always been readily available. Paella is a good example of a one pot rice dish, prepared with saffron, seafood, meats, chicken, sausage and peas. It derives from Valencia, on the eastern coast, where rice dishes predominate.Spain can be roughly divided into four principal regions of cuisine. The Culinary Institute of America has a terrific interactive map of Spain. Galicia, in the northwest corner of the country, is known for simple, fresh food using local produce and seafood. Empanadas hail from Galicia. In the northeast is the Basque region which shares a border with France. The terrain is mountainous with wild game and mushrooms. The Basque area is known for delicious sauces. Its neighbor Catalonia, to the south of the Basque area and on the coast, is home to what some critics say is the best restaurant in the world: three star El Bulli. The central part of Spain is a hot, dry expanse and the most common food is the olla podrida or stewed casserole. The eastern coast is Valencia, which is lush with citrus, olives and grapes.Countless types of paella can be found here. Tapas are ubiquitous--small plates of food, eaten as a snack, appetizer or as a meal when there are several plates served. According to “The Joy Of Cooking”, the name comes from the old habit of covering the top of a wine glass with a slice of meat (tapas comes from the word “tapar” meaning “to cover”). In any event, tapas are a culinary treat—small, lovely tastes of different foods usually served with Spanish sherry. Some examples would be grilled anchovies, small empanadas or fried potatoes topped with an egg. You can read some tapas recipes here or on my blog: Eggplant Tapas and Rustic Empanadas.

3/4 cup olive oil
3 cups onions, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
10 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped fine (retain the juices)
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
2 to 3 bay leaves
1+ teaspoon salt
Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan over low and add the onions. Caramelize the onions: cook over low heat (so they do not brown) for 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar and cook another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the onions are tender and a very light golden brown. You may have to add a few teaspoons of water to keep them moist. Add the tomato, paprika, and bay leaves and increase the heat until the mixture is just below a boil, then turn down the heat and cook another 15 minutes over low, stirring occasionally. Remove the bay leaves, add salt to taste. Serve warm or store in a covered glass container in the refrigerator. The sofrito will taste even better as the flavors develop and will keep for 4-5 days in the refrigerator.

The following recipe was created for a Touring and Tasting potluck and is being posted due to popular demand. It's a richly flavored, satisfying soup that can be a meal with a salad, bread and cheese and a lovely glass of the 2009 Oxford Landing Merlot.
4 Tbsp. olive oil
4 cloves garlic minced
1 cup sliced onion
1 tsp. curry powder
1 Tbsp. garam marsala
8 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 potato, peeled and cut in small 1/2" cubes
2 carrots, peeled and cut in small 1/2" cubes
1 cup washed and drained red lentils
1 4 oz. can tomato puree
3 cups (6 oz package) fresh spinach, chopped
1/4 cup uncooked quinoa
2 tsp. salt
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium low heat and cook the garlic and onion for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the curry powder and garam masala and cook another minute. Add the broth, bay leaf, potato, carrots, lentils, and tomato puree. Raise the temperature until the soup boils, then turn to low and simmer for 1/2 hour. Add the spinach, quinoa and salt and cook another ten minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Serve with a Merlot, like the succulent, fruit-forward 2009 Oxford Landing Merlot, which is part of this week's Online Grapevine special.
Serves 4.


Oden -- Warming, Nourishing Soup

Today the rain drizzles down unrelentingly in Southern California, while most of the country digs out of snow. When it's cold and gray outside, warm your bones with this nourishing soup called Oden that has plenty of protein and very little fat. The main ingredient is Japanese fish cake (kamaboko), increasingly available in the freezer section of chain grocery stores or at Asian markets. You can also special order it from Pacific Mercantile Company. The fish cake is made mostly from pollock with potato flour, ground to a paste, then formed into cakes and steamed, that have the texture of a firm dumpling. The image to the right shows some of the fish cake you may see in the freezer--the one on the left looks like a section of wood (Kibun brand Yaki Chikuwa), the one on the top right is mixed with shrimp and formed into a brown rectangle (Murutama brand Ebi-Tenpura), the bottom right is shaped into white balls (Yamasa brand Fish Cake), and the image to the left shows kamaboko on a wooden base which makes it easy to slice (clean and save the wood bases for many uses in crafts and home repair). You can also buy Oden in a package with a variety of fish cakes and a packet of instant broth. If you can obtain the ingredients, itadakimasu!

4 cups chicken stock
4 cups dashi broth (made from fish flakes)
3/4 cup light soy sauce, in two parts
3/4 cup mirin (Japanese cooking wine)
2 tsp. salt
4 cups assortment of fish cakes, sliced into bite sized pieces
4 cups of seafood: peeled, cleaned shrimp or bite sized pieces of fish, octopus, squid--your preference
*optional: bite sized pieces of chicken or chicken meatballs
6" of daikon: Japanese white radish, peeled and sliced into 1/4" half-moon-shaped slices (cut each round slice in half)
*optional: sliced butternut squash, rutabaga or kohlrabi
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled
In a heavy pot, simmer the chicken stock, dashi, HALF the soy sauce, mirin and salt for a few minutes, then taste. Add more soy sauce to taste, but remember the flavor will concentrate as the Oden cooks, so it will become more salty. You might want to reserve some soy sauce to avoid oversalting the soup. Add the kamaboko, seafood, chicken if used, and vegetables and gently simmer on very low heat for an hour. Add the cooked eggs in the last 15 minutes just to warm them. There should be ample broth to keep all the ingredients covered. The stocks should reduce by 1/3 and be dark brown. Serve with hot Japanese rice. Makes 4 servings. Oden is even better the next day, reheated after the flavors have melded together overnight!