Melting pot of a history gives California cooking it's rich, unique flavor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

California's history has been shaped by newcomers, and nowhere is this more true than in California cuisine. The early Spanish missionaries established an agricultural base, introducing fruit trees, chili peppers, olives and grapevines, all of which still play a significant role in local cooking. Later settlers discovered gold in the mid-19th century, and the waves of immigrants that followed -- Italians, French, Portuguese, Germans, Spanish, Irish, Japanese and Chinese -- brought a different kind of treasure with them: Collectively they created a cuisine of almost unparalleled diversity.

Because of these immigrants, California cuisine is remarkably international, reaching from the Mediterranean to Asia, pushing north from Mexico and Latin America, and are nourished by an abundant supply of excellent ingredients: plentiful and varied seafood from the north coast; fresh produce, coaxed by irrigation from the Central Valley and the Salinas Valley in Monterey County; fruits and nuts from the orchards and groves of the San Joaquin Valley and the south; and meat from the state's cattle ranches.

California wines, gaining international acclaim for its fine Cabernet Sauvignons, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Sauvignon Blancs and Zinfandels, enhance the cuisine.

Today, bountiful fresh produce is still the foundation of the well-stocked California kitchen, along with a good supply of basic Mediterranean herbs and spices, including garlic, basil, rosemary, sage and thyme; Asian specialties such as coriander seeds, ginger root, star anise, Thai basil and fermented fish sauce; and fresh cilantro and a selection of chilies, both fresh and dried, from Latin American markets.

And, in California there has always been a willingness to experiment. In that spirit, we urge you to use these recipes as guides, not as absolute commands. Bring your own skills and sense of adventure to the recipes, modify them, and serve them as you wish. That is, after all, true of the California style.

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California produces a variety of specialty cheeses, including many made from goat's milk.

Goat Cheese Salad With Hazelnut Vinaigrette

Serves 6

1/2 cup hazelnuts

6 ounces soft goat cheese

1/4 pound mixed lettuces, preferably including baby red

lettuce, escarole, arugula, radicchio and endive

VINAIGRETTE:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon hazelnut oil

1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar

salt and black pepper

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread the hazelnuts on an ungreased baking sheet and toast for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the skins begin to flake. Transfer the nuts to a kitchen towel, fold the towel over them, and rub vigorously to remove the skins. Discard the skins. On a cutting board, coarsely chop the nuts, and set aside to cool.

Form the goat cheese into 6 rounds about 2 inches in diameter. Coat the rounds completely with the chopped hazelnuts and transfer to an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 5 to 8 minutes, or until warmed through but not melted.

Tear the lettuce into bite-size pieces and transfer to a shallow medium-sized bowl. Prepare the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together both oils and the vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss lettuces with vinaigrette. Arrange salad on individual serving plates. Using a metal spatula, transfer 1 warm goat cheese round to each salad.

Per serving: calories, 216; protein, 6 g; fat, 21 g; sodium, 182 mg; carbohydrates, 2 g.

For best results, use Yellow Finn potatoes from the Pacific Northwest. This recipe brings out the creamy texture and buttery flavor of the potatoes.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Serves 6

2 1/2 pounds medium Yellow Finn or Idaho potatoes, peeled

and quartered

2 large garlic heads, cloves separated and peeled

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup half-and-half, warmed

salt and white pepper

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the potatoes and garlic, reduce the heat to medium-high, and boil gently, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes and garlic are tender. Drain well; set aside the cooking liquid.

Transfer potatoes and garlic to a large bowl. Add butter and coarsely mash potatoes and garlic with a potato masher or fork. Make a well in center of potatoes and pour in warm half-and-half. Using a hand-held mixer, beat mixture just until light and creamy. If necessary, add some reserved cooking liquid to achieve a smooth, fluffy texture. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Per serving: calories, 225; protein, 5 g; fat, 7 g; sodium, 67 mg; carbohydrates, 6 g.

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This decadent, eye-catching torte will make a dramatic conclusion to the most elegant dinner.

Chocolate Almond Torte With White Chocolate

Serves 8 to 10

TORTE:

1 cup blanched whole almonds

6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1/4 cup dry bread crumbs

2 tablespoons grated orange zest

GLAZE:

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

3 ounces semisweet chocolate chips ( 1/2 cup)

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

DECORATION:

3 ounces white chocolate, chopped

2 teaspoons solid vegetable shortening

For torte, heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment or waxed paper.

In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process the almonds until finely chopped. Set aside.

Melt chocolate chips in top of double boiler set over barely simmering water, stirring until smooth. Remove and set aside to cool slightly.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add bread crumbs, melted chocolate, chopped almonds and orange zest, and beat until just combined.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth the surface. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until top is cracked and torte has pulled away from the sides of the pan. Set pan on wire rack to cool 30 minutes.

For glaze, melt butter over medium-low heat in small saucepan. Add both chocolates and stir until melted and smooth. Add corn syrup and stir until glaze is smooth and satiny. Remove pan from heat and cool about 5 minutes, or until thickened slightly.

Turn cake out onto a rack, peel off paper, and set rack over a baking sheet. Pour glaze over torte and, using a long metal spatula, smooth it evenly over top and sides. Let stand 15 minutes, or until glaze is set.

To decorate, melt white chocolate with shortening in top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, stirring until smooth. Using a fork, splatter white chocolate over top of the torte, working in several different directions. Let torte stand at least 1 hour at room temperature to firm before serving.

Per serving: calories, 376; protein, 5 g; fat, 24 g; sodium, 94 mgs; carbohydrates, 36 g.

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Excerpted from "The Best of California: A Cookbook."

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