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David Latt

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Los Angeles, California

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David Latt has been a television writer/producer for 25 years, working on "Hill Street Blues" (won an Emmy), "The Hitchhiker," "Bakersfield P.D.," "Get A Life," "EZ Streets," "Stir Crazy," David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" (nominated for a second Emmy) and many others. He co-wrote half a dozen pilot scripts and headed the writing staff of DotComix a motion-capture animation web site. And through the long hours and stress of dealing with production craziness -- bad weather, out of control costs, needy actors, and distressed fellow writers -- he shopped at farmers' markets, cooked, and wrote about how important it is to eat well.

Sometimes after a really difficult week, he would cook all weekend. Eight, ten hours each day, he stood over the cutting board and stove, cooking until he got his focus back. Other people in his profession took up gambling or drank or went crazy chasing women. Not David. He went home to cook and write about his passion for food. Cutting carrots calmed him down. Writing a recipe for spaghetti with shiitake mushrooms and oven-roasted tomatoes gave him hope again.

In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he writes "Food Adventures," a weekly column for AOL Patch, Pacific Palisades and has contributed to Mark Bittman's NY Times food blog, Bitten, One for the Table and TravelingMom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenberg's travel site and NYDailyNews online.

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Chef Giacomino Drago Gives Panzanella A Healthy Twist Image

Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.

A contributor to the Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.

Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.

Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes,  basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.

A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.

Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.

Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.

Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.

Diet-Friendly Spelt Panzanella Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a salad portion, 2 servings as an entrée.

To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons spelt
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
  • 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
  • ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
  • 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Pinch of salt to taste
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
  2. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
  3. Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
  4. Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
  5. Add the cooked spelt berries.
  6. Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
  7. Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  8. Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
  9. Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.

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Smoky Mezcal Mixes Up A Spicy-Sweet Cocktail Image

This year, the gloomy, wet, cold winter seemed to last forever. Happily all that is a dim memory now. With heat and humidity back in our lives, it’s time for ice cold beverages, with new concoctions always welcome. Increasingly, mezcal (also spelled mescal) is appearing in trendsetting bars and liquor stores and inventive mixologists are using it to make fun and refreshing cocktails, perfect for summer.

All tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequilas

The Mexican government controls how and where mezcal and tequila are produced. It is as diligent in protecting the integrity of those appellations as is the French government in its guarantee that a wine labeled Bordeaux comes from that region.

There is still a lot of confusion about mezcal, beginning with what exactly is it? To get to the heart of the matter, I talked with mixologist Marcos Tello, who consults with El Silencio, a distillery in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Tello explained that both mezcal and tequila are made from the agave or maguey plant. Although there are dozens of agave varieties that are employed to make mezcal, for a distillate to be licensed by the government as tequila, only the blue agave may be used.

Tequila and mezcal are grown and bottled in different, designated regions but there are some overlaps. Tequila is primarily grown and distilled in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Mezcal is exclusively manufactured in Durango, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas but both mezcal and tequila are produced in the states of Guanajuato and Oaxaca.

Most mezcal is manufactured from a single type of plant, usually espadin agave. Sometimes agaves are blended to create a balanced flavor as is the case with El Silencio Mezcal, which blends espadin, tobasiche and Mexicano agaves.

Roasted, not steamed

To prepare the agave plant for fermentation, the body of the plant is trimmed of its thick leaves. What is left, the “piña,” looks like a pineapple. To make tequila, the piña is steamed and then fermented. For mezcal, the next step is crucial in creating the spirit’s distinctive flavor. Before fermentation, the piña is roasted in an underground pit. For aficionados, the resulting smoky aroma gives mezcal a quality similar to scotch and whiskey.

Like tequila, mezcal is graded. Joven (“young”), the first grade, indicates a mescal that was bottled within 60 days of being distilled. Reposado (“rested”) is aged longer, between two months and a year. If mezcal is aged in small oak barrels for at least six months and as many as four years, then it is labeled añejo (“aged”).

Among other classifications, there is also pechuga (“breast”), which denotes a small-batch mezcal that after completing two distillations is given a flavor-enhancing step in which fruits (plums, apples, pineapples and plantains), almonds, uncooked rice and a chicken breast with the skin removed are added. Yes, you read that correctly, a raw chicken breast, which is suspended over the fermenting distillate, the juices and fat helping balance the fruit flavors.

Mezcal cannot be substituted for tequila in all recipes. The deeply nuanced smoky flavor can overpower the ingredients used in many tequila cocktails. To illustrate mezcal’s distinctive qualities, Tello created a signature cocktail he calls a Saladito.

As with any cocktail that employs robust flavor components, the least expensive grade of mezcal should be used. Save the reposado, añejo and pechuga to sip and enjoy neat or on the rocks.

Saladito (courtesy of Marcos Tello)

Yield: 1 serving

Proust wrote that when he was presented with a plate of madeleines, childhood memories of an “exquisite pleasure” consumed him. Saladitos have a similar impact on Tello. The inexpensive Mexican candy originally from China is made from chile-salted, dried plums. Tello was inspired by homemade versions of the candy. On hot summer days, children would press a saladito into the middle of a lemon or lime and drink the juice as relief from the oppressive heat. That flavor memory inspired his creation of a mezcal cocktail that has sweetness lurking behind the smoky citrus notes. To add a salty-heat garnish to the cocktail, Tello uses a popular Mexican prepared seasoning called Tajin, a mixture of salt, dehydrated lime juice and pepper powder. If Tajin is not readily available, a similar effect can be created by mixing your own version as described here.

Ingredients

  • ¾ ounce honey syrup (see below)
  • 2 ounces mezcal (Tello recommends El Silencio Joven)
  • ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ¼ teaspoon Tajin seasoning or combine 2 parts fine granulated sea salt to 1 part cayenne pepper

Directions

  1. Prepare the honey syrup by combining 3 parts honey with 1 part hot water. Mix well. Refrigerate to cool. Reserve.
  2. Fill a cocktail shaker or a large (16-ounce) glass with ice.
  3. Add the mezcal, honey syrup and lime juice.
  4. Place a lid over the top and shake vigorously.
  5. Open the shaker, cover the top with a bar strainer (also known as a Hawthorne Strainer) and pour into a cocktail glass.
  6. Dust the top of the cocktail with Tajin seasoning or the cayenne-salt mix.
  7. Serve chilled.

Main photo: A mezcal Saladito by Marcos Tello. Credit: David Latt

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Just One Good Way To Try Swiss Wines, And It’s Worth It Image

Which Swiss wines do you love? Hands? Anybody? Nobody? Know why? Only 2% of Switzerland’s wine production is exported. All the rest is consumed domestically. The best way — actually, the only way — to sample Swiss wines is to visit Switzerland. That’s what I did last fall.

The Valais’ microclimate

Having grown up with images of Switzerland as a land of snow-covered mountains,  I expected cold weather when I visited the Valais, a  French-speaking canton east of Geneva. But the climate was better suited to shorts and T-shirts than to parkas.

Neatly trellised vineyards climb up steep hills taking advantage of a hot, dry microclimate. With 300 days of sun a year, the Valais feels like Napa and Sonoma except for the Matterhorn looming in the distance.

In Switzerland, family-owned vineyards and wineries (called vignerons-encaveurs) are the rule. Even if unprofitable, they stay in the family. We met one winemaker whose family was regarded as a newcomer. They had worked the vineyard for only three generations, whereas the neighboring farm had been owned by one family for seven generations. Neither winery was self-sustaining. Everyone had a day job.

During a hosted trip we tasted dozens of varietals from local vineyards, some with such a small output that customers who lived in the neighborhood consumed their entire production.

The wine most closely associated with the Valais is Fendant, a white wine made with the Chasselas grape. But it is a red wine, not a white, that is making news these days.

Cornalin, the new kid on the block

Twenty years ago the Swiss government encouraged farmers to plant improved strains of grapes that were indigenous to Switzerland and to pursue new blends with distinctive qualities. The goal was to expand the export market for Swiss wines.

In the Valais that led to the improvement of Cornalin, a grape that had been cultivated since the Roman Empire. Used primarily in blends to make inexpensive table reds, the wine was often bottled without appellation or date of production.

Rouge du Pays

Frequently confused with an Italian grape with a similar name, the Swiss variety (Rouge du Pays or Cornalin du Valais) is genetically distinct. In the 1990s the Agroscope Changins-Wädenswi, a federal agricultural agency, funded research to cultivate promising local strains to improve the quality of the grapes and the survivability of the vines. A group of young vintners adopting the appellation Le Coteaux de Sierre planted the new vines. Over time, the acreage in the Valais devoted to Cornalin has expanded.

 

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The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

The wines have a low-tannin, fruity flavor and a dark cherry red color. Helping market wines made with 100% Cornalin grapes, the wineries of the area have enlisted an unlikely champion.

Antoine Bailly is an internationally respected academic and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Geography, 2012). A native of Switzerland, Bailly travels the world as a lecturer. These days his passion project is Cornalin.

A Cornalin Museum: Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins

On a tour of the under-renovation Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Bailly pointed out details of the building, parts of which were built in the 13th and 16th centuries. Restored at great expense, the building is unique in the area for its history and architectural details. Open to the public in late August 2014, a photographic tour of the museum is available on a French language website.

In the tasting room, products from 17 of the local wineries can be sampled, along with cheeses and charcuterie from local purveyors. To visualize where the grape is grown, Bailly created an interactive map with the locations of the Cornalin vineyards in the Valais. Another interactive display with video screens illustrates the cultivation of the grape.

A temperamental grape

In the tasting room, with Bailly leading an animated discussion accompanied with appetizers of local cheeses and slices of beef sausage from Boucherie La Lienne in the village of Lens, we sampled several of the 100% Cornalin wines. Each of us had our favorite. Mine was the Bagnoud Cornalin, Coteaux de Sierra (2012) Rouge du Valais.

Bailly described the grape as difficult to grow and unstable. Slight variations in heat or rainfall can ruin the harvest. Through trial and error, the vintners have learned how to get the best out of the grape.

So why bother with such a temperamental grape? The answer was pretty direct. The vintners like the wine they’re making with Cornalin. For them, the extra effort and increased risk are worth it.

Cornalin needs three years in the bottle to mature. With the vintages currently offered for sale, these wines will be at their best just about the time the museum opens. Bailly invited us all to come back then. In the meantime, we bought bottles of our favorites to bring home. We had become little agents of export for Swiss wines.

Top photo: The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey.  Credit: David Latt

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Drunken Shrimp From Chef David Padilla Of Luxe Image

After a long winter, summer will be welcomed with open arms. Looking ahead to outdoor parties under sunny, blue skies, chef David Padilla’s easy-to-make Drunken Shrimp sautéed in a spicy citrus sauce is the perfect recipe for lunch or an early dinner.

As Padilla describes what he loves about cooking, he remembers his father taking him to the markets in their small town in the Mexican state of Nayarit, on the Pacific coast between Sinaloa and Jalisco. His father would lead him past the fishermen on the beach and ask, “Do you want oysters today, or fish or shrimp?” They would eat what had been in the ocean’s clear waters only a few hours before. And long before farmers markets were fashionable, he and his father shopped in the mercados to buy freshly picked produce from the family farms outside of town.

Chef David Padilla in his kitchen at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

Chef David Padilla in his kitchen at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

So when Padilla says he searches out organic, local and seasonal products, he’s not following trends, he’s referencing his childhood in rural Mexico — even if his kitchen is now in a boutique hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills.

Padilla is chef de cuisine at Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel’s restaurant called On Rodeo Bistro & Lounge. As documented in the recently published “Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” the wealthy city has dozens of restaurants. Surprisingly, only one of those restaurants is on Rodeo Drive, the city’s internationally known, upscale shopping street.

Chef puts a Latin touch on Drunken Shrimp recipe

Given the hotel’s cosmopolitan clientele, Padilla embraces a California-inspired, fusion cuisine. He describes his menu as “a little bit of Asian, Latin, Mediterranean, a little bit of everything because we’re in L.A. and it’s a melting pot of cultures.”

At the restaurant, Padilla pulls together Latin, Asian and French influences. The bits and pieces he takes from many cuisines are melded into a balance of flavors and textures. For him, a meal is a journey. As he says, “I want your mind and taste to get lost and then you get to your destination.”

Padilla puts a decidedly Latin spin on Drunken Shrimp. The well-known Chinese dish has many iterations. One decidedly cruel version tosses live shrimp into a pot of liquor. Most commonly, the shrimp are cooked in wine or liquor so shrimp and diner presumably can share the bar tab. The shrimp in Padilla’s dish are flavored with tequila. Citrus sections and freshly squeezed juices give the dish its bright, summery flavor. serrano peppers add fire, and butter mellows and sweetens the dish.

With such a flavorful sauce, Padilla wants every drop to be enjoyed. He serves the shrimp with a thick slice of a soft Italian ciabatta bread, toasted on the grill. He suggests that rice and pasta would be good companions for the shrimp. I think steamed spinach would also be delicious.

Mexican Drunken Shrimp in a Spicy Citrus Sauce

As with any recipe, quality ingredients increase the pleasures of the dish. Use freshly squeezed citrus sections and juice and the freshest raw shrimp available. To sear the shrimp, a frying pan like one made of carbon steel that can tolerate high heat is very helpful. Quick searing is important for flavor and appearance, and also because searing seals in the shrimps’ juices. Because the flavors of the sauce take several minutes to combine, the shrimp simmer along with the other ingredients. Smaller shrimp and ones not seared can dry out and become chewy.

Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

While grapefruit and oranges are available year-round, kumquats are seasonal. When they are available, they are a beautiful addition to the dish.

Taste the sauce and adjust to your palate. You may want more lemon or grapefruit juice or less. Do not season with salt during cooking. The shrimp are naturally salty. Padilla dusts the plated dish with a small amount of sea salt crystals to “brighten” the flavors.

Serves 4

Ingredients

12 raw large shrimp (10 to a pound), washed and patted dry

4 tablespoons blended oil, 80% canola oil, 20% olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

4 tablespoons chopped garlic

4 teaspoons finely chopped shallots

4 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, patted dry and finely chopped

12 tablespoons sweet butter, plus more for bread

4 thick slices ciabatta

8 ounces tequila

1 cup orange or Cara Cara orange juice

4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

4 tablespoons freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

12 kumquats, washed, patted dry and sliced into rounds with the skin on

4 fresh serrano chilies, washed, patted dry and sliced into rounds

12 grapefruit sections, membranes removed

12 orange sections, preferably Cara Cara oranges, membranes removed

Sea salt as needed

Directions

1. Prepare each shrimp by peeling away the shell, exposing the body. Leave 1 inch of shell covering the tail. Devein and drizzle with 2 tablespoons blended oil, season with black pepper, garlic, shallots and 2 tablespoons parsley. Set aside.

2. Heat a grill. Place a small amount of butter on each side of each piece of ciabatta. Using tongs, grill the slices on both sides. Remove and set aside.

3. Use a large frying pan so the shrimp are not crowded. Place the pan on a burner with a high flame. When the pan lightly smokes, drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons blended oil into the pan. The oil will smoke in a few seconds. Using metal tongs, place the shrimp into the pan.

4. Each shrimp will sear quickly. Turn to sear the other side. This will not take long.

5. From the marinade, add the garlic, shallots and parsley. Sauté to caramelize.

6. Remove the pan from the burner so the tequila doesn’t catch fire when added. Deglaze the pan with tequila. Stir well to lift the flavor bits off the bottom of the pan.

7. Add the citrus juice and sliced kumquats. Stir to blend together the flavors.

8. Add serrano peppers.

9. Place chunks of butter into the sauce. Stir to melt and mix together.

10. Turn the shrimp over to absorb the sauce. Reduce a few minutes.

11. To plate, use shallow bowls. Place four shrimp in each bowl. Portion out the sauce, covering the shrimp. Garnish each plate with grapefruit and orange segments. Place a slice of grilled bread on the side. Dust with a sprinkling of sea salt crystals. To add color, lightly drizzle the grilled bread with olive oil and dust with parsley.

Main photo: Shrimp marinated with shallots, garlic and Italian parsley being prepared for Chef David Padilla ‘s Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt

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Moroccan Tagines Take The Edge Off Winter’s Gloom Image

When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.

Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.

Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an  honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.

The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.

Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains

In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.

At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.

 

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On a highway stop between Fez and Marrakech, Morocco, a take-out cafe serving different tagines. Credit: David Latt

Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.

Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen

Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.

In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.

Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.

Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins

Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.

As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.

This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed

¼ cup kosher salt

¼ cup golden raisins

1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided

3 tablespoons lemon juice

4 garlic cloves, peeled

⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped

1 teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)

⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped

1 cup cracked green olives

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

Directions

1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.

2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.

3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.

4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.

5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.

6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.

7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.

8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.

9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.

10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.

11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.

12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.

Variations

  • Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
  • Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
  • Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
  • Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
  • Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.

Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt

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Need A Pan That’s Smokin’ Hot? Reach For Carbon Steel Image

Place a carbon steel pan on a stovetop burner on high heat and stand back. In minutes, the surface temperature will reach 600 to 700 F. When hazy smoke floats into the air, it’s time to drizzle a small amount of oil onto the pan. The oil scatters across the surface, looking for a place to hide from the heat. But there’s no escape. The oil accepts its fate, adds a bit more smoke and waits. Drop a piece of marbled meat or a beautiful medley of farm fresh vegetables into the pan and the sizzling begins. Smokin’ carbon steel is the alchemist’s apprentice, transforming fat and starch into savory sweetness.

To create beautifully charred meats and crispy skin fish filets, restaurant chefs use sauté pans designed to take high heat. Searing caramelizes the outside and locks in flavor. In the home kitchen, cast iron and stainless steel pans are favored by many, but carbon steel has advantages over both. No health issues are associated with using carbon at high heat and cleanup is easy. Like woks, once a carbon steel pan is seasoned, the surface turns black so there is no need to brandish a scouring pad and cleanser.

Working with carbon steel

Some additional care needs to be taken. Never soak a carbon steel pan in water or place in a dishwasher. Simply scrub with a little soap to remove particulates and grease, rinse, then heat the pan on a stove top burner until dry and the pan is ready to use again. Acidic ingredients such as lemon juice and tomatoes can affect the seasoning of the pan, but that is easily remedied by following the manufacturer’s directions.

Available in cooking supply stores, the pans are half the cost of stainless steel and twice the price of cast iron. Once seasoned according to the manufacturer’s directions, the pans are virtually indestructible and designed to last a lifetime.

The pan I use is a French-made de Buyer 12.6-inch Mineral B Element. A bit lighter than a comparably sized cast iron pan, the extra long handle never gets hot when used on the stove top. At high heat, the surface of the carbon steel pan becomes nonstick with the smallest amount of oil.

Very much like Chinese stir-frying, cooking at high heat requires all ingredients to be prepped before cooking begins. To avoid risking a burn, experts suggest using a pair of long metal tongs, 12 inches or longer to manipulate the ingredients in the pan.

Get ready for some serious heat

A good exhaust hood with a fan above the stove is also necessary. High heat’s sweet smoke can turn from pleasure to pain if unvented. Many a meal has been spoiled by the annoying screech of a smoke alarm.

Use an oil that can tolerate high temperatures. A proponent of high-heat cooking to prepare his signature crispy salmon filet, chef Taylor Boudreaux of Napa Valley Grille in West Los Angeles, Calif., recommends a blend of canola (80%) and olive oil (20%).

Keep a premixed bottle on hand in the kitchen and you’ll always be ready for a smokin’ good time.

 

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A medley of vegetables -- carrots, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, onions and garlic -- sizzling on a carbon steel sauté pan. Credit: David Latt

Pan Seared Bone-In Ribeye Steak

I believe a little bit of steak goes a long way, so my preferred portion is 6 to 8 ounces. Quality rather than quantity makes the difference in this supremely easy-to-make, protein-centric dish. Buy the highest quality steak available.

A good steak deserves good accompaniments that are entirely personal in nature. One person draws pleasure from a side of fries, another prefers a baked sweet potato with butter. Some diners wouldn’t eat red meat without a glass of red wine. I enjoy a charred steak with caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms served alongside garlic-parsley mashed potatoes, a carrot-broccoli sauté and an ice-cold perfect Manhattan up with a twist. But that’s me.

The times indicated in the recipe are estimates. The thickness of the steak will affect how long the meat needs to be cooked to reach the desired level of doneness.

Serves 1

Ingredients

1 bone-in ribeye, T-bone or Porterhouse steak

Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste

½ teaspoon blend of canola oil (80%) and olive oil (20%)

1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional, see variations)

1 garlic clove, peeled, root end trimmed (optional, see variations)

½ teaspoon finely chopped chives, or the green part of a scallion (optional, see variations)

Directions

1. Wash and pat dry the steak. Season lightly with sea salt and black pepper. Set aside.

3. Place the carbon steel pan on a burner on a high flame.

4. When the pan lightly smokes, drizzle the oil into the pan. In seconds the oil will smoke.

5. Using tongs, place the steak in the pan. Press down gently along the edges and the meat next to the bone. Pressing too firmly will force juices out of the steak which would diminish the flavors.

6. Allow to cook and sizzle. Steaks are best served medium-rare. Make adjustments as to time if you prefer yours less or more cooked.

7. After 3 to 5 minutes, turn the steak over. After another 3 to 5 minutes, press against the middle of the steak. If the meat feels solid, it is cooked. If it can be pressed down easily, then it probably requires more cooking. To be certain, use a sharp paring knife to make small cut in the middle of the steak. Inspect and determine if the steak has cooked to the state of doneness you enjoy.

8. Serve hot with your preferred sides and beverage of choice.

Variations

1. Use a combination of stovetop searing and oven baking, as many restaurant chefs do. To do this, sear the steak for 2 minutes on each side, then place in a 400 F oven for 5 minutes. To remove the pan from the oven, remember to use an oven mitt. The handle that rarely gets hot on the stove top will be very hot after spending time in the oven.

2. Test for doneness as before. If not cooked to your preference, place back in the oven.

3. After removal from the oven or the stovetop, drop a teaspoon of sweet butter and a crushed garlic clove (peeled) into the pan. Spoon the butter-garlic mixture over the steak, bathing it in the sauce. Discard the melted butter and garlic before serving. Place the steak on the plate with the sides.

4. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon finely chopped chives or the green part of a scallion over the steak just before serving.

Caramelized Farmers Market Vegetables

Perfect as a side dish or as an entrée with noodles or rice, the vegetables should be charred but not overcooked so their texture is al dente. Using the freshest, highest quality vegetables will create a better tasting dish. Butter is optional, but a small amount can add a level of umami that turns a good plate of vegetables into an outstanding one.

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 large carrots, washed, root and stem ends removed, peeled, cut into rounds or 1 -nch oblongs

1 medium onion, washed, root and stem ends removed, peeled, julienned

3 garlic cloves, skins and root ends removed, smashed, finely diced

2 cups broccoli florets, washed, sliced long ways into bite-sized pieces

2 cups Brussels sprouts, root ends trimmed, cut into quarters or julienned

1 cup shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, stem ends trimmed, thin sliced long ways

1 teaspoon blend of canola oil (80%) and olive oil (20%)

Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)

Pinch of cayenne (optional)

Directions

1. Assemble all the vegetables on the cutting board, ready to use. If serving with steamed rice or cooked pasta, have that prepared as well.

2. Set the burner on the highest setting. Place the carbon steel pan on the burner. Allow to heat until a small amount of smoke begins to form.

3. Drizzle in the blended oil. When it smokes, add all the vegetables.

4. Using the tongs, toss the vegetables frequently to prevent burning. Toss for 3 to 5 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked al dente.

5. Remove the pan from the burner. Because the carbon steel is still very hot, continue tossing the vegetables. Add the butter and cayenne (optional). Toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional sea salt and pepper.

6. Serve hot as a side dish or with the pasta or rice.

Variations

– If caramelized onions are preferred, cook them separately until they take on a golden color, then add the other vegetables.

– Substitute or add vegetables you enjoy, such as zucchini, turnips, kale or kohlrabi. Since some vegetables cook more quickly than others, learn which ones need to go into the pan ahead of the others. For instance, small diced turnips and kohlrabi would go in first before adding the other vegetables.

– Instead of adding butter and cayenne (optional), add 2 tablespoons soy sauce or an Asian sauce (optional), and for added heat, add 3 tablespoons finely chopped Korean kimchi (optional).

Top photo: Carbon steel sauté pan on high heat, smoke rising from the blended oil. Credit: David Latt

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