Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Taking the stress out of entertaining at home

I've always enjoyed entertaining people at home. Perhaps it comes easy for me because I spent 16 years in the catering and hospitality business. But for many people, it is intimidating and stressful. I'm here to tell you that it needn't be.


First of all, why entertain? Isn't it easier to just meet friends at a local restaurant or bar? Sure. But here are 2 reasons not to:


1. It's loud. When was the last time you can remember eating in total peace and quiet at a restaurant, let alone a bar? Plates clanging, waiters rushing about, people talking too loudly, kids crying (my favorite). What could possibly be relaxing about that? How can we have truly enjoyable conversation with people when we are vying for their attention and screaming over the din? I realize this is a foreign concept to many Americans, used to "grabbing a bite", but dining should be a time to sit and relax, unwind, savor the pleasures of eating, and enjoy the social interaction that takes place over a meal shared together.


2. It's healthier, and less expensive, to eat at home. You control the quality of the ingredients. You have not cut corners, as many dining establishments do, to cut costs and increase the bottom line. It's not about that at home. In the confines of your kitchen, you are in charge. Completely.


And there's really a #3 here as well: cooking for others is my way of showing friends and family that I love them, that I care enough about them to take the time to plan a menu, shop for the ingredients, cook and set a nice table. If you are invited to someone's house for dinner, make sure to return that love by reciprocating. Once you do it yourself, you'll understand that it's also nice to be cooked for.


Now, let's talk about the stress of doing this. First of all, never compare yourself to anyone else. What someone else does may be right for them but not so for you. That said, if you've ever been invited to someone's house for dinner and liked some aspect of what they did, there is no harm in borrowing good ideas and implementing them at your own dinner party. Copying is the greatest form of flattery, they say. If you're the creative sort, it's a little easier. If you're not, then countless magazines out there are full of ideas for what to cook, how to set a nice table, and how to create ambiance. The main thing is to not stress out over any aspect of it. Relax and enjoy the process, finding joy in every aspect of the preparation.


Ok, so that may seem easier said than done. So, let's break it down.


First, choose a date. Saturdays are probably the best day. You have all day to set the stage, and this helps reduce stress because time is on your side. As you do this more and more frequently, you might be inclined to plan dinners during the week. If you're smart, you'll make these potluck.


Next, choose your guests and then the menu. Depending on the former, you will then choose the latter. If you don't already know your intended guests' food preferences/dietary restrictions, then make sure to ask at this stage of the game. Are they vegetarian, on a low-sodium diet, don't drink alcohol, trying to lose weight, diabetic, allergic to anything? These factors should play a major role in determining the menu. Taking these preferences and needs into account will go a long way in showing your guests that you care about them and make them feel special. Which they are - they will be your guests of honor.


Another influence in determining the menu is the time of year. Choose ingredients that are representative of the season and are "in" season so that these ingredients are at their peak.


Choose beverages according to the menu and / or the taste of your guests. Offer non-alcoholic choices as well as the customary beer and wine or mixed drink. Make sure plain or bubbly water is always available.


Setting the table nicely is another way to add a special touch to your evening. For a table centerpiece, choose items that are appropriate for the season. It doesn't have to be fancy or expensive. A beautiful glass bowl filled with fresh fruit in season or vegetables that you will be using in the menu is a lovely, thoughtful touch. When it comes to the dishes, if you have a set of china you got for your wedding and never use it, I say get it out. What are you waiting for? Dining with those you care about should be enough of a "special event" that warrants breaking out the good stuff. So too for glassware and flatware. You could get hit by a bus tomorrow. On your deathbed, you'll ask yourself why you didn't just use the "good stuff". And while you're at it get out the nice linens and cloth napkins. There are few occasions where paper napkins look good. And light candles - everyone looks better in candlelight.


So now that we know who's coming, what they like and don't like to eat, what season we're in, and have a vague idea of what we want to make, how do we decide what works together? Well, for starters, check out my post about composition. I touch on that. The most important thing you should keep in mind is choosing things that will not create you stress or at least not too much of it. Read the recipes through completely before cooking, make your shopping lists, and then read and perhaps even re-read them again so that you can organize your prep time wisely. Cooking is not a linear experience. You jump around. For instance, even though pasta is one of the last things you cook, it's one of the first things to start. The water, since you need so much of it to cook pasta properly, will take quite a while to come to a boil. So, plan accordingly. The longest things need to be started first. That might mean you start with making dessert first, then the entree and sides, and then the salad last, even though you'll be eating it all in reverse order.


Do not attempt to make too many courses or complicated dishes unless you are comfortable cooking. Remember our ultimate goal: to bring people together and ENJOY one another. If you are so stressed out from trying to make everything perfect, you will not accomplish the goal and the experience will not be fun for you.


People around the world use the dining experience to create and solidify the social bonds that connect them to other people. Enjoying the company of those we care about while savoring a lovingly-prepared meal at someone's dining table, makes life that much sweeter. Perhaps this could be a new year's resolution for you. So, this is my last post for 2010. I wish you and yours a happy New Year and happy cooking in 2011!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Budget meals

It's the last week of holiday shopping, and you're likely pretty busy right about now, so there's not a lot of time, or money, left over for fancy dinners. Or so you think...................

You're not really THAT busy to skip cooking, are you? Think about it: in the time it takes to choose a place to eat, wait to be seated, get menus and make a selection, wait for the food, eat the food and pay the check, you've long since put your dishes in the dishwasher at home. And not to mention the cost of eating out: wow! Wouldn't you rather spend that money on a gift for yourself?!

Here are a few ideas for dinner that take very little of both time and money. They are also a lot healthier than what you'd eat out and we all could use a little more healthy food during the holiday season!

Both recipes feature eggs as the main focus. Not just for breakfast, they also make great, inexpensive dinners. The first recipe combines the techniques of a souffle and an omelet for a lovely puffed up wrap for spinach and cheese.

Souffled Spinach Omelet

1 pound spinach, washed and stemmed
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch nutmeg
4 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons finely grated fresh Parmesan cheese or Gruyere

Wash the spinach and cut off the stems. Spin the excess water out. Drop the spinach into a large pot on the stove to wilt, about 3 minutes. (There will be enough water still clinging to the leaves to steam it.) When the spinach is cooked, drain, and plunge it into an ice-bath to seize the color. Remove the spinach and squeeze dry in a tea towel. Chop the spinach.

Heat half the butter in a frying pan, and gently saute the shallot. Add the spinach, and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. When hot, turn off the heat, and set aside.

Put the yolks in a metal bowl and set over a pot of gently simmering water (make sure the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl.) Season the eggs with salt, and pepper, and whisk until thick and frothy. Remove the bowl from the heat. In a separate bowl, beat the whites to stiff peaks, and fold into the yolk mixture.

Heat the remaining butter in a large non-stick frying pan for the omelet.

Pour the egg into the pan and cook until the bottom is set, and golden, and the top is still fluffy and soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Scatter the spinach mixture all over the omelet, then the cheese. Cover the pan for a few minutes to soften the cheese. Uncover, and fold the omelet in half, and slide it onto a plate. Serve immediately. Serves 2-3.

Recipe courtesy of Laura Calder's cooking show on the Cooking Channel, French Food at Home.

 
Next up, crepes. Another very inexpensive way to dress up savory fillings like vegetables and lean protein. Crepes can also be filled with sweet fillings, such as fruit, and served as dessert.

French Pancakes (Crepes)

3 eggs
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
2 Tbsp. butter or margarine

In a blender or food processor, blend eggs and flour. Gradually add milk, mixing until smooth. Refrigerate for 1/2 hour. This helps create a more tender crepe. In a flat-bottomed fry pan over medium heat, melt 1/4 tsp. butter and swirl to coat. Pour in about 1 1/2 Tbsp. of the batter, tilting pan so that batter flows quickly over the entire flat surface. If heat is correct and pan hot enough, the crepe sets at once and forms tiny bubbles. Cook until edge of crepe is lightly browned and surface feels dry. To turn, run a side spatula around the edge to loosen. Lay spatula on top of crepe and very quickly invert pan, flipping crepe out onto spatula. Then lay the crepe, uncooked side down, back into the pan and cook until lightly browned. Turn crepe out of pan onto a plate. Repeat with each crepe, stirring batter occasionally and stacking crepes. Use within a few hours or let cool and package tightly, and refrigerate up to one week. Freeze for longer storage. Bring crepes to room temperature before separating else they tear if cold. To reheat, stack crepes and seal in foil. Place in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 min. Makes about 16 crepes.

Spinach and Onion Crepes

3 Tbsp. butter or margarine
1 large onion, thinly sliced and separated into rings
2 pounds spinach (bagged and washed would be easiest)
2/3 cup whipping cream
1/2 tsp. each salt and lemon juice
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded swiss cheese
12-16 crepes at room temperature

In a 5-6 qt. sauce pan over medium high heat, melt butter. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally until soft (about 20 minutes).

Add spinach to the onions, cover and cook until limp. Stir in cream, salt and lemon juice. Cook over high heat, stirring until most of the liquid has evaporated. Spoon filling and cheese equally down center of each crepe, roll to enclose. Place desired number of crepes in a single layer in a shallow casserole dish. Cover and bake in a 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  Remove cover from crepes and bake 5 minutes more or until ends are crisp. Serve with sauteed mushrooms, accompany with sour cream.

Sauteed Mushrooms: in a wide frying pan over medium heat, melt 2 Tbsp. butter, then add 1/4 lb. sliced mushrooms and cook, stirring, until liquid has evaporated and mushrooms are slightly brown. Sprinkle with some finely chopped parsley. Spoon over crepes.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It isn't Christmas without Fondue

Making cheese fondue on Christmas Eve has been a tradition in my family for as long as I can remember. It just isn't Christmas without it, and it's what I'll be making again this year on December 24th.

If you're not familiar with it, the Swiss Fondue is a communal dish which consists of melted cheese traditionally served in an earthenware pot over a small burner. The word Fondue is taken from the French fondu, which means melted. Long-stemmed forks are used to spear whatever is going to get dipped, usually cubed bread, apple slices, cubes of potato or other dipping items. Garlic, wine and Kirsch are also part of the heavenly molten mixture, and all sorts of condiments can be served on the side.

Chinese Hot Pot
But fondue does not only have to be cheesy. There are also meat and seafood fondues, where meats and vegetables are cooked in a pot of either oil or broth. The Chinese Hot Pot is very similar. And then there's the dessert fondue, where chunks of cake, fruit, marshmallows or other sweets are dunked into warm, molten chocolate.

My favorite is the cheese fondue. Depending on where you eat it in Europe, the cheeses will vary. Swiss cheese fondues likely consist of Gruyere, Emmenthal, Vacherin, or Appenzeller cheese.  If you're in France, Comte, Beaufort or Emmenthal; and in Italy, Fontina. Sometimes vegetables are added such as tomatoes, bell peppers, chilis, or mushrooms. I like a blend of 2 cheeses, usually Gruyere and Emmenthal, as they are readily accessible in my local market at a reasonable price.

Special equipment is not required although there are fondue pots made just for the occasion. I used to have an enameled pot, but switched to an electric one after setting my dining room table on fire. No joke, I really did this. I overfilled the container underneath with too much liquid alcohol. Don't ask (table was fine, by the way. Refinished). Anyway, I go electric now. I find I can control the temperature better, as well as avoid setting the house on fire. The set pictured on the left above is the traditional serving pot; the one on the right is the electric one I have. Pots range in price but the more reasonably priced models start at about $30 (here's a link to comparison shop). If you're just 2 people, like we are, you could get a smaller one for a good price, but the larger ones you'll need for groups of 4 or more and that's when fondue is really fun!

Fondue is a great way to bring family and friends together. It engages everyone and keeps their attention, mainly because there's always the fear of losing your cube of bread in the cheese. If you do, there are penalties (you just have to sit out a turn or kiss the person to your left, or whatever rules you want to inflict on your guests). Since it's a unique dining experience, you can create fond,  lasting memories.

This is the recipe I use. We usually start with a mixed green salad with a housemade vinaigrette, and end with Christmas cookies.

Cheese Fondue

1 garlic clove, cut in half
Fondue with "the works"
1 lb. Emmenthal, or 1/2 lb. Emmenthal + 1/2 lb. Gruyere cheese (if you're serving 6 people, increase to 1 1/2 lbs. of cheese), grated
1 shot Kirsch (this is NOT a sweet cordial - this is a spirit or eau de vie), or substitute brandy or vodka
2 cups white wine, such as a Chablis
2 tsp. cornstarch
white pepper
a pinch of nutmeg

Take the 2 halves of garlic and rub them cut side down all over the inside of the fondue pot. Leave in the pot when done. Over moderate heat, add the wine. In a separate bowl, combine the Kirsch with the cornstarch (but don't add yet). You're ready for the next step when fine bubbles appear in the wine. Add the cheese gradually, stirring constantly (add a handful first, let that melt, then add another handful, let that melt, etc. When all the cheese is incorporated, turn the heat a bit higher, but don't allow the cheese to come to a boil. Continue stirring until you feel a slight resistance, then add the cornstarch/Kirsch mixture, allowing it to thicken your fondue. Stir in just a pinch of white pepper and nutmeg. Transfer to the table.

Dippables: French or sourdough bread cut in small pieces; cubes of cooked potato or cauliflower, apples, or grapes; cornichons, pearl onions or other marinated vegetables.
NOTE: It's important to use cheeses that are not pasteurized, because they don't melt properly.

______________________________________________________________

Here's a recipe that I am also quite fond of. I actually make this one in a small enameled pot on the stove and my husband and I end up eating it in the kitchen - it never makes it to the table! It's great as an appetizer dip with crackers, cubes of French or sourdough bread, or apple slices. Do buy a really good white cheddar for this such as English Coastal Cheddar*. It makes all the difference.

Tomato and Cheddar Fondue

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
6 cloves roasted garlic
2 tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded and cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 1/2 Tbsp. flour
3 cups (12 oz.) shredded white cheddar cheese
1/2 cup dry white wine

In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the garlic and tomatoes and saute, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes just begin to soften, about 2 minutes.
While the tomatoes are cooking, combine the flour and cheese in a bowl and toss to coat the cheese.
Add the wine to the tomato mixture, stir once, and then add the cheese, a handful at a time. Heat and stir until the cheese is completely melted. Transfer to a fondue pot set over an alcohol burner or sterno flame to keep it warm. Serve immediately.
If you want to know more about fondue, please click here.

* I purchase mine at either Costco or Trader Joe's.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Buy Nothing for Christmas

What a headline! It captured my attention this morning as I scanned CNN.com for today's news. Apparently there's a sentiment that seems to be finally growing among Americans this holiday season and that is to cut way back on gift shopping. Several online movements are encouraging people to save their money, make their own presents, or provide personal services like baby-sitting or massages as gifts. "The holiday season is about sharing time with loved ones, not going into debt", one woman was quoted. "It is entirely unnecessary to spend money in order to show others that you care."

With so many families struggling to make ends meet, it seems like a no-brainer to cut back on spending, yet it's predicted that people will spend more this year than last. I find that hard to believe given the current state of affairs most of us are in. Isn't this mass consumerism partly to blame for the struggles the Western world faces today? Haven't we found ourselves having to face the fact that for too long now we have not lived within our means?


One woman's husband the article described had lost his job 2 years ago and is still struggling finding part-time work. But despite the struggle, or perhaps because of it, they have gotten stronger as a a family and learned valuable lessons in being thrifty. She can give her kids an even more important gift than the latest toys and gadgets, and that is "a family that is financially stable even in a falling economy".

From a related article I read about Kenneth Wingard, a home furnishings designer, who this year is planning on giving away organic peach jam and preserves from his California ranch for the holidays. "It's definitely a cost savings," Wingard said. "It probably ends up costing us about $2 a jar and we are handing out 60 this year." But he doesn't just do it for the cost, he enjoys the warm feeling it brings him.

"They are the kind of fuzzy peaches I remember growing up with in Georgia -- where you buy them off the side of the road and they make the whole car smell like summery goodness," Wingard said. "The jam is the same way -- the color of the peaches stays vibrant and when it hits warm bread it smells like I'm back on the side of the road with peach juice dripping down my chin."

Isn't that lovely? Doesn't that description just take you to Georgia? I can imagine the intensity of the fruit that he remembers from his childhood and the juices running all over. Yum.

If you are one of those people who wrestle with finding the "right gift" or you're looking to save some of your hard earned cash, look to your talents or hobbies, such as cooking, and ask yourself if you can't tap into that and use it as a way to give to others this holiday season.

A personal, homemade food gift would be appreciated by anyone. How thoughtful would it be to bake tantalizing treats, "put up" preserves or jam, make your favorite spice blend, assemble all the dry ingredients of your favorite cookie recipe in a jar, or offer to cook one night for a busy family, all of which are ways to give without breaking the bank.

Now, who wouldn't want a gift made with love?

To read the article on CNN.com, click here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why composition is important

It's easy to overlook how important it is to compose dinner. You may be thinking, "ok, listen, my spouse and kids could care less what's on the plate - as long as it's food". Perhaps, but it's important to think about composition not just for aesthetic reasons, but also because meals should be about balancing flavors and taking in nutrients. What do I mean by composing the plate? It means thinking about what components your plate is going to consist of. Let me explain by giving you an example of what NOT to do:

I once made the following for dinner: chicken, cauliflower, and rice. See a problem here? Everything was WHITE! Clearly a lack of planning. Had I visualized what everything would look like once it was on the plate, I might have realized that this would end up a monochromatic dinner. The best composed meals consist of a variety of colors, textures and flavors. My chicken would have been better alongside something green or red to perk it up.

"Eat the rainbow", the saying goes. Not only is a plate more visually appealing when it consists of a variety of colors, but by doing so we take in the diverse nutrients our bodies need from foods that are red, purple, orange or green. Each of these colors represents a family of nutrients that are vital to health.

Consider making small changes to your usual fare. For instance, potatoes don't have to be white: if you leave the skins on the little rose variety, they can be red (and also provide additional fiber that you would lose if you removed the skin). Roasting them with herbs can provide some interest. For something unique that even kids might find fun to eat are purple Peruvian potatoes that add a lot of interest to a plate, and taste just like regular potatoes. Rice also doesn't have to be just white; brown rice is FAR tastier and much more nutritious because the fiber hasn't been stripped off. You can try mixing rices. I just bought a 3-rice blend at Sprouts Market that contains grains of brown, red and black rice. Wild rice is also very visually interesting, either alone or when blended with brown or white rice. Spices can be added to rice while you're cooking it that give off some color. For instance, chili powder, saffron, and turmeric all have distinctive colors and flavors that can add some excitement to otherwise boring dishes.

A nice array of
colors and textures
 Meats can be changed color by blackening them, adding spice rubs to them, giving them grill marks on the BBQ and slathering them with sauce (of any variety of color).

Vegetables are going to naturally provide loads of color and texture. But the one thing you do not want to destroy is the vibrant green of many vegetables that get steamed or cooked. When done cooking, it's a good idea to immediately toss them into an ice bath to shock them, thereby preserving their green color. This is especially true of green beans and broccoli, which can turn a yucky brownish color when allowed to sit at room temperature. You'll just want to gently reheat them before serving.

Another thing to consider is not only color, but texture. For instance, you wouldn't want everything on your plate to be creamy. Vary the textures by offering something creamy, for example, alongside something with some crunch.

And lastly, another consideration is ingredients. Don't have the same thing in more than one side. For instance garlic. As much as I love it, you wouldn't want garlic mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach with garlic, and garlic roasted chicken all on the same plate. Garlic is healthy, but goodness, you'll have to seriously air out the house and give everyone Altoids! Something to strive for is to prepare sides that either compliment or contrast one another, such as something acidic alongside something sweet for some good balance, or something spicy alongside something creamy (like dairy) to fan the flames.

Composing your plates does require some advance planning. It means visualizing the end result before beginning to cook. With some experimentation you can put together a well-composed plate sure to please everyone you are feeding.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tools of the Trade: the Immersion Blender

In my Soup post yesterday, I suggested taking the Potato Soup and putting it in batches in a blender to puree it. The smoothness of the soup is really nice. But there's an easier way to puree soups and that is to use an immersion, or hand, blender. It's shaped like a long wand with a little blade at the bottom end that blends the contents of your soup. It's very handy. When you don't feel like taking a ladle and scooping soup into a blender in batches (because most likely you will have too much soup for your blender) and then having to empty the blender into yet another vessel until you've emptied your soup pot completely, all you do with the immersion blender is immerse it into the pot and hit "go" and whirl away, moving the blender around the pot to catch everything. It's also easy to clean and tucks away into a drawer when you're done.

Prices vary considerably and they are made by all sorts of companies, including Krups, KitchenAid and Cuisinart, to name a few. Here's an article that rates various brands.

Though the immersion blender might be one of those appliances you don't have to have, it might be nice if you like to puree and blend a lot of things. Not only is it good for soups, but you can also use it for making sauces and dressings.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Tools of the Trade: Knives

A good knife makes all the difference when cooking, and it is by far the most important tool in the kitchen. You don't realize how much you are missing if you have a set of old, dull, bad knives. Your cooking experience will be all the more joyful with the proper tool. If you haven't already, go out and buy the best knife you can afford and DO NOT SKIMP. Like a good set of cookware, a good set of knives should last you quite a while, provided you take good care of them.

Good knives should NEVER go into the dishwasher. This is Enemy No. 1. Hand-washing will preserve them like nothing else. Ideally, after washing, they should be dried and put away.

Knives should be stored in their own drawer, in little slots meant just for knives, or in a butcher block type of thing that sits on your counter (see photo, right). There are also metallic strips that you can mount on your wall where the knife blade sticks to it like a magnet. This is cool if you have the wall space.

What kind of knives to get? You can get a "set" that contains a variety of knives used for different purposes, or you can get just a few single ones. There are only about 3 or 4 knives that you will really need: a few inexpensive paring knives for peeling, a 6-inch knife that's small enough to use for paring but large enough for some slicing, and a 10-inch chef's knife for chopping and slicing. A heavy cleaver is helpful for cutting into heavy dense winter vegetables, an inexpensive small serrated knife is useful for slicing tomatoes and a larger serrated knife is great for slicing bread. That's it!

Most of the knives commercially available are constructed out of stainless steel, high carbon stainless, carbon steel, or titanium. Some are made out of ceramic or plastic. For a description of each, you can read this article. Naturally your budget and preference will dictate which you choose, but stainless steel is the most common type available and probably the easiest to maintain. Another consideration is the handle and how it feels in your hand. You want a good grip on it. The handle materials also vary: wood, plastic, steel. Lots to choose from, but again, buy the best you can afford and what you like.

Mostly importantly, knives should be sharpened frequently. Dull knives will tear and rip food. You want to easily slice through the food, not rip it apart. I've read that professional chefs sharpen their knives each time they begin work. While that may be a bit too frequent for the "home chef", I would do it at least twice a week, if you're cooking daily. Obviously the more you cook, the more often you'll want to sharpen. If you buy a block, there is usually a sharpening tool included, otherwise you can buy manual or electric sharpeners  that you slide the knife through. They are really easy to use and do a fair job. If it's been some time since you've sharpened your knife, find a professional knife sharpener to do the job for you.

You are only as good as your tools, and to do a good job in the kitchen, you should have the proper tools that not only make life easier for you but do the job well. If you find your kitchen in need of a new knife, Christmas is coming, you know!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thanksgiving Recipes

Thanksgiving is coming! It's my favorite holiday. Not only does it take place during this fantastic time of year, but it's the colors....of the sky, the leaves and the sun that are the most amazing part of November. The sunlight that filters through the trees in the late afternoon, casting long shadows, brings forth incredibly rich colors. These images are brilliant, sometimes so beautiful they stop me in my tracks as I walk my dog through the park each day. Being able to see these images is really something to be thankful for. And that's my favorite part of this holiday, the message: being thankful for all that we have.

Thanksgiving is essentially a harvest-related festival and it celebrates communal harmony.  In America, the first Thanksgiving is said to have taken place on December 4, 1619, and it was to give thanks for the Pilgrims having survived their first winter in New England. The feast lasted 3 days providing enough food for 53 pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. I often wondered what was served at that first Thanksgiving and I have researched this and found that the feast consisted of "fowl, venison, fish, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash and turkey". Though we often think it originated in America, a number of other countries celebrate harvest-related festivals. They are observed with different names and in different seasons. Canada celebrates thanksgiving on the second Monday in the month of October. India also has a number of harvest related festivals in different regions. Other Asian countries such as China, Malaysia, Korea celebrate the festival on different dates. Each festival has folklore attached to it but ultimately harmony, peace, and a feeling of gratitude is the underlying theme of the celebration all over. What I find so beautiful about this is that despite where we live, people around the world celebrate having something to be thankful for.

Do you take the time to ask yourself this on Thanksgiving - what are you thankful for? Ok, other than the food! I know, who can resist the Thanksgiving meal?

What are you making? I am still weeding through the November issues of the cooking magazines I've collected from bygone years to find something that knocks my socks off. I'm getting closer. I'm fairly sure I know which recipes I'll be using for the sweet potatoes and the cranberries, but I'm still searching for a "green" (vegetable) recipe. Someone else in the family is bringing green beans so I can't do those this year. I'm thinking spinach or swiss chard or something similar.

I spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws and over the years we've developed a nice tradition. Where my mother-in-law would normally have everyone over at her house and do ALL the cooking herself, a few years ago I realized this was becoming too much for her and asked my brother- and sister-in-law if they would help me in making all the side dishes, to take a bit of the burden off her. They agreed and it's been a lot of fun being part of the process of preparing the Thanksgiving meal. My mother-in-law still makes the turkey, but we divvy up the sides that need to be made. This year I again offered to make the sweet potatoes, in addition to the cranberries and a vegetable. A few years ago when we started this, I found a sweet potato recipe that has now become a favorite. The sweet potato recipe of my youth and probably yours as well (you know the one: with marshmallows) has fortunately become a thing of the past.  If you love sweet potatoes, you will absolutely die when you taste this one. I think it's fabulous. I can find nothing that tops it.

Rum-glazed Sweet Potato, Apple & Pecan Gratin

3 pounds sweet potatoes, pricked several times with a skewer
3 Golden Delicious apples
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup chopped pecans
3 oz. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
2 Tbsp. dark rum
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground mace (I don't have any so I omit it or use a wee bit of clove)

Preheat oven to 400F.
Bake the sweet potatoes in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until tender. Let them cool. Peel them and cut them diagonally into 1/4 inch slices.
Peel the apples and cut them lengthwise into eighths.
In a bowl toss the apples with lemon juice and arrange them with the sweet potato slices in a buttered 14 inch gratin dish. Sprinkle with the pecans.
In a stainless steel or enameled saucepan, cook the remaining ingredients over moderate heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Spoon the mixture over the sweet potatoes and apples and bake the gratin in the middle of the oven, basting occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until the apples are just tender and the sweet potatoes are heated through.
The uncooked gratin can be assembled 1 day in advance and kept refrigerated, covered. When ready for it on the Big Day, bake it uncovered, basting occasionally, for 40 minutes, then put the gratin under a preheated broiler for about 4 inches from the heat until the edges are lightly browned.

Makes 8 servings.

Cranberry Sauce

2 cups cranberries
Juice and chopped zest of 1 orange
1/4 cup port wine
1/2 cup sugar or more if needed
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. cornstarch

In a small saucepan combine cranberries, orange juice and zest, port, sugar and cinnamon. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until cranberries are tender, stirring occasionally. In a small cup make a slurry with cornstarch and 1 Tbsp. water. Whisk cornstarch mixture into cranberry sauce and cook, whisking, until sauce thickens. Taste and add more sugar if necessary.

Makes about 2 cups.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pumpkins

Though we often associate pumpkins with Halloween, they are not just for carving into scary faces. Pumpkins offer loads of vitamins and nutrients, are low carb and high in fiber, and their seeds are considered anti-inflammatory. So this is just the right time of year to fill up on them both.

The large variety we carve are usually jack-o-lantern pumpkins which don't make for good eating because they tend to be too watery. There are other varieties that are far better to cook with, such as the Sugar Pumpkin and the Cinderella Pumpkin. The reason for that is that their flesh is denser and richer making them ideal for baking and roasting.

When selecting your pumpkin, you want one that is heavy for its size, weighing about 2-5 pounds. Anything larger is harder to handle and cut, and is usually less tasty. The little ones are loaded with flavor, and that's what we're after!

Despite its size, one way to avoid a watery result is to roast your pumpkin. In fact, if it's small enough, you can roast the thing whole, no joke. Just make a few slits in it with your knife and pop the thing whole in the oven. What relief, because it is far easier to take apart a pumpkin that's been roasted than to cut one up that's raw. For more information on how to prep and roast, click here.


I get a monthly email newsletter from a local chain called Sprouts, in which this recipe was listed last month. I just made it for dinner this evening and it was a tasty side for my roasted chicken. It calls for a unique combination of spices that are usually found in sweet recipes, but it's actually a savory dish.

The recipe calls for cutting up a raw pumpkin, so I advise buying a small one to make life easier. I actually cut mine in half and roasted it a bit first, making removing the flesh from the skin a bit easier, but you don't have to.

Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Mash

1 stick unsalted butter
3 shallots, peeled and sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
5 sprigs fresh thyme, stems removed, finely chopped
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2 inch cubes
2 pound pumpkin, peeled, seeded, and cut into 2 inch cubes
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups milk (cow, soy, rice or almond)
pinch nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
chives, finely chopped

In a deep pot on medium heat, melt the butter. Add the shallots, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, sugar, thyme, and cook stirring, until  the sugar melts, about 3 minutes. Throw in the sweet potatoes, pumpkin, stock, and milk and bring them to a simmer. Reduce heat and cook until the potatoes and pumpkin yield to your fork, about 30-40 minutes.

Drain the pumpkin and sweet potato, saving 1 cup of the liquid. Throw away the ginger and cinnamon. In a large bowl, mash the sweet potato/pumpkin. Add nutmeg and salt. Taste. Season more, if necessary. Splash in a bit of the cooking liquid and stir, for an even texture. Before serving, sprinkle with the chives.

Serves 6.

NOTE: I cut the recipe quantities in half and it looks like I will have enough leftovers for 2 more meals (as a side dish), so unless you have an army to feed, or you want to freeze some for another time (which isn't a bad idea), I would advise making 1/2 the recipe. The seeds I removed and washed, and tomorrow night I will sprinkle them with a little olive oil and salt and roast them for a few minutes until they just turn a bit golden. They will be the perfect snack for the office the next day.

Recipe courtesy of the glutenfreegirl.com food blog, adapted from The Soul of a New Cuisine.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tools of the Trade: Stainless Steel Cookware

Today, there is a plethora of cookware available and with so many pots and pans to choose from, how do you know what to buy? Aluminum core, copper core, stainless steel, glass, waterless, cast iron.....the choices are endless.

Everyone probably has their favorite, but I love my stainless steel cookware. It's easy to use and easy to clean, with minimal fuss. I bought a set of All-Clad probably 8-10 years ago, and though it was a bit of an investment, I will have them for the rest of my life. And since I plan to eat for the rest of my life, they will most certainly be used!

One thing I would caution against is getting any "non-stick" cookware. If you haven't heard, there is quite a lot to worry about with the stuff giving off toxic gasses, teflon breaking off and ending up in the food, etc. It's not good. I bought a non-stick pan that is "green", made without these toxic substances, but I honestly don't care for it. The stainless steel pans have the advantage of being able to brown food, and this browning adds a lot of flavor to your food. Non-stick cannot do that for you. You really can't deglaze a non-stick pan. If you think you "need" a non-stick pan to cook omelettes, that's not so. Provided you get the pan hot enough before adding the eggs, the stainless will not stick. I promise! Check out this link for information on making sure your pan is hot enough. See, I told you.

There are many brands out there offering stainless steel. Prices fluctuate wildly, depending on the company, how it was constructed, what other metals (such as aluminum or copper) are sandwiched in between the stainless for better heat conducting. Your budget and cooking experience will dictate what's best for you. For deals on almost anything, try http://www.pricegrabber.com/, or http://www.overstock.com/ and search for stainless steel cookware.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Flavor Profile: Herbs (Part Deux)

In July, I posted about my favorite summer herbs, and many of you made the potato and green bean medley that was featured. I am thrilled you liked it, too.  Thank you to everyone for your feedback!

Sage leaves
Now that it's Fall, other favorite herbs of mine appear in many of this season's dishes, such as sage and rosemary, both offering bold flavor to the dishes to which they are added.

Sage grows as a bushy plant and is evergreen in warm climates. Its strongly aromatic leaves are a soft gray-green color are are especially lovely grown in your herb garden or container. Sage is particularly good with fatty meats and cheese, fish, pasta, rice and in vinegars. Sage can be used fresh or found as a finely ground powder.

You can fry sage leaves very briefly in olive oil and add the crispy leaves as a pretty garnish on top of soups and pasta dishes such as ravioli filled with butternut squash or pumpkin, and then drizzle the flavored oil that results from the frying on top of those dishes for an excellent flavor enhancer.  You'll find this technique in the following recipe.


This is one of my favorite soups. I made it once as a first course for Thanksgiving and dinner guests that night still remember it, years later! I have made it many times since because it is simply fantastic.

Winter Squash Soup with Sage

2 Tbsp. olive oil
18 small fresh sage leaves
2.5-3 pounds winter squash (this can be anything you wish. Try a combination of Butternut, Kabocha, Red Kuri, Buttercup, or Acorn)
2 unpeeled onions, cut in half
6 cloves unpeeled garlic
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage leaves
3/4 tsp. fresh or 1/4 tsp. dried thyme leaves
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
salt and pepper
3 ounces (1/2 cup) 1/2 inch cubes fontina cheese

Pour oil into a 6-8 inch frying pan and place over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add whole sage leaves (make sure they are dry, else oil will spatter everywhere) and stir until they turn a dark green, about 45 seconds to 1 minute. With a slotted spoon, lift out leaves and drain on paper towels, set aside. Reserve the oil.
Rinse squash, slice in half and scoop out seeds. Discard seeds. Brush cut surfaces of squash and onion with reserved oil. Place squash and onions cut side down in a baking pan and slip garlic underneath the squash. Bake in a 375F oven until vegetables are soft when pressed (45-60 minutes). Reserve pan juices. Scoop flesh from squash skins and discard. Peel garlic, peel and chop onions.
In a 3-4 quart pan, combine squash, garlic, onions, parsley, chopped sage, and thyme. Mash squash mixture with a potato masher and stir in reserved pan juices and the water or stock.  Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, to blend flavors, about 25 minutes. Season soup with salt and pepper to taste. Stir any remaining sage cooking oil into soup. Distribute cheese equally among 6 bowls, and ladle soup into bowls. Nice with a dollop of creme fraiche on top (but optional). Do search out Fontina cheese (Hint: Trader Joe's). It has a nutty flavor that works very nicely with the other ingredients in the soup.

Recipe courtesy of Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
Rosemary

Rosemary is another one of those fantastic fall herbs. Its narrow, spiky leaves perfume the air with an unmistakable piney scent. At this time of year, and occasionally in the spring, too, lovely little blue flowers nestle among the sharply pointed leaves. It's easy to grow and mine has turned into a five foot tall bush, affording me access to it all year round.

Rosemary is great with all kinds of meats and vegetables. Lamb, turkey, chicken, beef, pork all benefit from rosemary's fragrant addition. It's particularly good on the grill alongside the meats so that as it gets grilled itself, it can impart a subtle flavor to the meat. Finely chopped and added to salt and pepper, it can encrust meat before roasting. The herb is also fantastic in all sorts of soups and stews.

With such rainy weather today, it was meant to be "Soup Night" tonight, and on the menu was Italian Lentil Soup with Tomatoes.

Lentil Soup with Tomatoes

1 cup dried green or brown lentils
1-2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
3 strips bacon, diced
1 onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely diced
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 can (14 oz.) chopped plum tomatoes
8 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the bacon and cook for about 3 minutes. Stir in the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until softened. Stir in the celery, carrots, rosemary, bay leaves and lentils. Toss over the heat for 1 minute until thoroughly coated in oil. Pour in the tomatoes and stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, half cover the pan, and simmer for about 1 hour or until the lentils are perfectly tender. Remove the bay leaves and rosemary stem (all that will remain is the stem, the leaves will have fallen off during cooking, leave those in the soup). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Apple Season is here!

It's October, and so that means apples are at their peak right now in many parts of the country. Apple butter, apple juice, apple cider, apple pie, and caramel apples, it's all good! And of course, my absolute favorite combo since I was a kid: a fresh, crunchy apple paired with a really good white Cheddar (or aged Gouda): yum.

If you're in the Southern California area, there are some fun places to go to enjoy fresh picked apples, and some orchards will even let you pick your own, for a fee, of course. I can recommend a few.

Just east of Los Angeles, I recommend the town of Oak Glen. There is a great place up there called Riley's at Los Rios Rancho. I was there for the first time last year around this time. I loved it and hope to make it back this year to check out a few places we didn't get to. The Los Rios Rancho has a great store, of course selling all things apple, as well as a big lawn in front where you can have a picnic and enjoy a slice of apple pie fresh from their bakery...

Isn't this beautiful?
It's a great place to spend a few hours. They have an apple press where you can make your own...


...as well as lovely nature trails you can walk along, admiring the beauty of this mountain town and the fall foliage...




...a lovely display of pumpkins for sale...



...just a great place! Here is their website. You can see what apples they have available right now. Other places to visit up there (also listed as the city of Yucaipa): Law's Cider Mill & Ranch (I hear they have awesome caramel apples), Moms Country Orchards, Parrish Pioneer Ranch, & Willowbrook Apple Farm.

If you're nearer San Diego, you can head to Julian. They're also famous for their apples and the little town offers a few nice B&Bs to stay overnight, as well as shops and restaurants (and bakeries serving fresh apple pie). Check out their website for a listing of spots to get/buy/pick apples.

Around the Central Coast, Jack Creek Farms is a cute place to go. Next time I'm up there, I want to check out a few new places: Blue Sky Farm, SLO Creek Farms, or even the Ballard Apple Farm in Solvang on the way home.

Here's a nifty website if you want to read more about apples.

Now, for an outstanding Apple Tart recipe, you must try this one. Fresh apple slices sit above a cream cheese filling inside a cookie crust. It's best eaten the same day it's made, so invite some friends over and eat it up at one sitting.


Apple Tart

Preheat your oven to 400F.

Crust:
cream together:
1/2 cup softened butter (1 stick)
1/3 cup sugar
Add:
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup flour
Form into a ball. Press the crust into a 9" tart pan with a removable bottom (or a cake pan) with your fingers, coming up the sides of your pan. Prick the bottom with a fork. Bake blind for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the following:

Filling:
1 egg
8 oz. cream cheese (allow to come to room temp)
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 cup sugar
Whisk (or use mixer) until very smooth.

Topping:
2 apples, sliced thinly, leave skins on
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
Toss the above together.
Set aside for later: a handful of sliced almonds (or small walnut pieces) for on top.

When crust is done, remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Spread cream cheese mixture into crust. Arrange apples on top in nice rings. Scatter nuts over apples.
Bake 35-40 minutes in 400F oven. Cool in pan. Then slice and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Flavor Profile: Marinades

Marinating food is a great way to add flavor. If you were to compare a chicken breast, for instance, that just had some BBQ sauce slathered on it and a chicken breast that had been allowed to sit in a marinade all day, you would no doubt like the marinated one better. But marinating takes time and some advanced planning.

I will usually create the marinade the night before I want to use it. Either that evening or the following morning I will put the marinade in with the meat, usually in a large ziplock bag, and let them get to know each other all day in the fridge. In the evening when I come home, I take it out and toss out the marinade and put the meat on the grill. You don't ever want to use that marinade. The only exception is when you marinade veggies. You can take the marinade and cook it down, reducing it to a more syrupy consistency and serve that alongside the vegetables, but you don't want to take any chances with the marinade that's been marinating meat. That you want to throw out.

I recently posted a Peanut Sauce that I just adore. It is truly the best peanut sauce I've ever had. It goes along with Chicken Satay and in that post I mentioned the marinade for the chicken. This is the recipe. We had it a few nights ago for dinner.



Chicken Satay

1 Tbsp. light brown sugar
1 Tbsp. curry powder
2 Tbsp. crunchy peanut butter
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
crushed dried red chili peppers
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into long strips each about 1/2 inch wide

Combine all the ingredients in a shallow dish. Add the chicken pieces and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or preferably overnight for a more intense flavor.

Thread the chicken pieces on bamboo skewers, weaving skewers in and out of meat lengthwise to create a serpentine design. Preheat your grill or broiler and turn skewers several times while basting about 6-8 minutes. Sprinkle with lime zest or chopped fresh cilantro and the peanut sauce. Delicious.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Oatmeal, Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies

I love cookies. They are without question my favorite treat. Small and compact, they are a great way to have a little something sweet, provided you don't eat a dozen at one sitting! Cakes, ice cream, and pies don't do for me what a good cookie will do. I just love them.

One of my favorites is the oatmeal cookie, and particularly at this time of year I get in the mood to bake them. I really love this recipe; it's not the traditional "oatmeal raisin" variety. I think this one's better, mainly because of the great combination of oats, chocolate and pecans. I think it's especially because of the pecans that I crave them in the fall. Also, rainy weather puts me in the mood to bake - I don't know what it is. Good thing it doesn't rain around here too often!

I made a batch of these tonight after dinner. Here's my ensemble of ingredients.


You'll love these if you like cookies that are slightly chewy on the inside, yet crisp on the outside. YUMMY! What's important is waiting those 2 minutes after taking them out of the oven to crisp up a bit so that they are just perfect!

Oatmeal, Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Ground oats
1 cup regular oats (I grind them briefly in the food processor for a finer texture)
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup softened butter
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted
1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
(mini chips will disperse better but regular sized ones will give you more chocolate!)

Preheat oven to 350F.
Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and the next 4 ingredients (through salt), stirring with a whisk; set aside.
Place sugars and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Add vanilla and egg; beat until blended. Gradually add flour mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in pecans and chocolate chips. Drop dough by tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper or Silpat. Bake at 350F for 12-14 minutes or until edges of cookies are lightly browned. Cool on pans 2 minutes. Remove cookies from pans; cool on wire racks. Yield: 3 dozen.

I usually don't bake them all at once else I would eat them all at once. So I take out enough batter for a batch of 6-8 cookies and freeze the remaining dough, taking out just enough for when I want to bake just a few more.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Satisfying Smoothies

These nearly record-breaking temperatures we've been having (112 today where I live) put me in the mood for cold, refreshing, fruit smoothies. This always happens to me when it's super-hot. So this afternoon, I had a juice place make me one, which I wanted to sip as I was driving around in the heat running errands. But they are so easy to make at home, and in the summer especially I love making them for breakfast.

Smoothies are basically fruit-based blended drinks, whipped up in a blender. They get their thick texture from blending fruit or fruit juice with banana, yogurt or ice. The fun in making smoothies is selecting whatever fruit(s) are in season and what you like to eat. 

In addition to the fruit, all kinds of things can be added to smoothies to make them healthier: soy or whey-based protein powders, spirulina, herbal extracts, wheat germ or ground flaxseeds, amino acids, immune-boosting nutrients and even liquid vitamins. But unfortunately, I have found most of these healthy additives alter the flavor of the smoothie, taking away from instead of adding to the flavor of the fruit. I've certainly added my share of these healthy ingredients to my breakfast smoothies, and you can if you like, but lately I've become a smoothie purist and prefer to make the fruit the star of the show.

The best smoothie is made up of fruit that is REALLY ripe. Because of its higher sugar content it makes blending that much easier. I usually use plain, lowfat, organic yogurt, but I've seen recipes that suggest using  frozen yogurt (I imagine like plain vanilla or some fruit flavor). Or, of course, if you avoid dairy, you can use alternative like rice milk, almond milk (works nicely with a lot of fruit especially apricots and peaches), soy milk, coconut milk or coconut cream (particularly delicious and great for those tropically-inspired creations).

This year my favorite fruit has been peaches and nectarines so this recipe is one of my favorite:

Peaches Galore

1 peach, peeled, pitted, chopped
1 ripe banana
3-4 oz. peach juice (or orange juice if you can't find peach)
3-4 oz. plain yogurt
1 Tbsp. honey (depending on ripeness of the peach)
3-4 ice cubes

Whirl everything together in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a tall glass. Serves 1.

I haven't made this one but it sounds refreshing for hot days:

Melon Smoothie

3/4 cup seeded and chopped watermelon*
3/4 cup seeded and chopped very ripe honeydew melon or canteloupe*
juice of 1 lime
3-4 ice cubes

* In peak melon season, you might want to select 3-4 different kinds of melon, whatever you find. Recipe called for yogurt, but that doesn't sound right to me. I think it would be better with just the melon juice. Serves 2.


This one takes you away to a tropical island (if only for a few minutes):

Mango Fusion

2 mangoes, peeled, pitted, chopped
juice of 1 small lime
6 oz. vanilla lowfat yogurt
2 Tbsp. honey
8-10 ice cubes

Serves 2.

What about berries? Whirl them with red currant juice, a banana, and yogurt. Like tropical fruit? Take pineapple juice, add fresh papaya, mango & banana, lime juice, and coconut milk. How about fresh kiwi, pineapple juice and yogurt? The combinations are endless.

Mmmhhh, I'm cooling off already!

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