Monday, August 25, 2008

A Zest For Lemons

A Zest for Lemons

As a native New Yorker, I never thought I’d be in a situation where I’d be harvesting Myer Lemons and figuring out what on earth to do with them. But, I’m in California now, with a good friend who has 2 magnificent trees resplendent with Myer Lemons in her backyard in sunny Oakland.

This friend does not have a culinary bone in her body but what she lacks in interest, she makes up for in enthusiasm; I wanted to come up with some easy and fun ideas for my friend so she could take advantage of her harvest and create a new dimension to gift giving and entertaining.

Here are some simple ideas for a delicious twist on lemons-

Vodka Lemonaide- No explanation required, this is the best summer cocktail around, served in a martini glass with a lemon twist.and a sugar rim on the glass.
Lemonade- Kind of obvious I know but for many, an afterthought! Squeeze the juice of about 12 lemons in a pitcher. Fill the pitcher with water to take the liquid up to the top of the vessel. Add about ¼ cup to ½ cup of sugar depending on your taste and you’re set!
Lemon Pasta- This satiny lemon sauce is beyond it and does not require advanced cooking. Mix together the juice of 1 meyer lemon with a couple egg yolks and about ½ cup cream and toss into ½ lb. egg pasta with freshly grated parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Sumptuous.
Preserved Lemons- The perfect complement to roast chicken or pasta and a great hostess gift. Take your lemons, cut in half. Squeeze their juice into a beautiful jar, and put the lemons in with skin side facing out after coating inside of lemon with kosher salt.. Throw in spices if you want but I prefer pure lemons. Let the jars sit for 1+ months and you’re good to go. If you’re giving as a gift, tie some ribbon or raffia around the neck of the jar and you have a beautiful kitchen gift for a friend.
Deep Fried Vegetable basket with Myer Lemons- decadent spin on tempura veggies. Deep fry coated lemons, asaparagus, artichokes, green beans and you have a fun tempura basket.
Lemon Bars- The summer classic with buttery, shortbread crust
Limoncello- This is so simple to make and delicious. Pour a bottle of vodka or grain alcohol into a bowl. Peel about 7 or 8 lemons and put the lemon skins in the bowl of alcohol. (you can save the actual lemons in the fridge for some future cooking project). After a week or 2, strain the alcohol and discard the lemon skins. You will now have a yellow liquid! Mix with simple syrup and bottle and you have created Limoncello.
Meyer Lemon Marmalade- This is one of the first projects I did with my friend and it yields a very sweet jam.
Lemon Wreath- Okay, this is not a food, but if you have an over abundance of lemons, try buying a round, wire wreath form at a craft store. Get some wire and work boughs of lemons on the branches with green leaves around the wreath form to create a stunning lemon wreath. These are beautiful but don’t have a long life. Still if you’re looking for something new to do, they are lovely while they last.

Friday, August 8, 2008


The Worst Meal Ever-
I know you’re wondering what restaurant I’m going to mention here- right? Nope, have to say I am responsible for what amounts to the Worst Meal EVER…this week…2 nights ago…yuck. I always wonder how that can happen. I mean you’re humming along in the kitchen, pretty experienced, confident, at ease, fearless. You follow the recipe- one that has worked just fine in the past mind you. And everything goes south.

It all started innocently enough when I was at Trader Joes and bought a packet of Rice Noodles to make Pad Thai. I knew I had chicken, egg, green onion & fish sauce at home so all I really needed were a couple limes, peanuts & bean sprouts and I was pretty well set. I was so pleased with myself- thinking outside the box and all, trying an atypical meal for dinner for once! Usually I’m lucky if I can whip up some sliced tomatoes and soup with bread or something equally boring.

Don’t get me wrong, I am passionate about cooking- but cooking as in the entertaining type of cooking. I know this about myself so recently I’ve been trying to get out of the rut and try new recipes for everyday living. And I have. In the past 2 weeks, I’ve made the Barefoot Contessa’s Orzo with vegetables and goat cheese (but I used blue). It was outstanding. I’ve made my sister in-law Marci’s bread recipe and her orange, ginger pork tenderloin (see my blog “Phenomenal Cooking” for the recipe). Her recipes are phenomenal, can’t get enough good… I’ve made chicken baked with prosciutto and parmesan, a roasted pear salad with mixed greens with a honey/shallot vinaigrette dressing and gorgonzola blue cheese. You see, I’ve really been trying with pretty good results! Which is why, it was quite a shock to make the WORST MEAL EVER. I mean, I was on a winning streak with one good recipe, one good meal after the other. Surely I thought, the Pad Thai is a slam dunk, I’ve made it before several times and it was great, authentic, better than restaurants good.

That was then; this is now…it started with over-cooking the noodles. Not only did I over-cook them, the bigger mistake was also cooking the noodles a good hour before I was actually ready for them. They hardened and stuck in the colander while I prepped the vegetables, cooked the chicken, scrambled and cooked the eggs. When I turned around to get the noodles I found the problematic lump of starch; but being resourceful, I forged ahead! Knowing or I should say assuming I’m a good cook I decided to improvise to fix the problem. I dumped the lump into the sauté pan, warmed it up with some garlic and olive oil… then because I’m so clever I thought it would be smart to pour in a little white wine to give it some liquid and nuanced flavor. Well, let’s just say that was not enough liquid to solve the problem. So then I added chicken broth while I tossed the rest of the ingredients into the pan. It seemed to go from bad to worse because by the time the bean sprouts got in, the green onions were a faint yellow, a vague memory of their crisp, greenness gone. Desperately I continued- adding the sugar and fish sauce. I think this is the first time in all my years of cooking Thai that I couldn’t get enough fish sauce in there to make things taste right. In all, by the time I was done, I was committed. I tried it, yes. AND IT WAS THE WORST MEAL EVER! Not quite clear on what happened here but let’s just say the rest went into the trash and I ate bologna for lunch the next day.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Southern Food & Beverage Museum- Hurricane Katrina, Donations Needed

Do you have some cookbooks you're not using/have never used that are collecting dust? Here's a great way to help out others and put those books to good use.

GREAT idea!

(Excerpted from Dianne Jacob 6/08 Newsletter)
Katrina-Damaged Museum Needs Cookbooks

Alumnus Laura Martin Bacon sent this email: Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, estimates the museum lost over half of its cookbook collection to Hurricane Katrina. Liz needs cookbooks, and lots of them.

The museum seeks culinary books about the American South and volumes from areas that have influenced Southern foodways. This means all new and used food-themed books, in all conditions (food-spattered and beat-up is just fine), dealing with cuisines from all over the world. Liz emphasizes that they're seeking everything from professionally written cookbooks and culinary histories to community cookbooks and pamphlets. Send your donations to:
Liz Williams
Southern Food & Beverage Museum
1 Poydras Street, #169
New Orleans, Louisiana 70130

Include your name and address so the museum can acknowledge your generosity. For more, visit (click on "collections," then "library") or email

Take a moment to look at your cookbooks, even if you just have 1, that can make a difference!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Phenomenal Cooking

Phenomenal Cooking

That sounds pretty exciting doesn’t it? As you know I love to cook, and it happens that most of my family members are exceptional cooks as well. So imagine what happens when you put 4 of us together for a week on vacation… phenomenal cooking! It all started when my mother planned a special week of golf in Florida at her house inviting myself and my 2 wonderful sisters (sisters in law) as well. The only agenda was golf, sun, pool and each of us would take a night to cook and where needed, we would pitch in to do, “team cooking”. Sounds good doesn’t it?

Let me paint the picture for you: sunny, balmy Southern Florida near Naples at the Gulf Coast. Leisurely days, beautiful home and gourmet kitchen. Golf lessons by day, with one alligator sighting. That was about as relaxing as you could ask for and then swimming, movies and cooking with family in the late afternoon & evening.

Here’s how the menus panned out, each meal was outrageously good and unmatched by any restaurant. Dessert? M & M’s! Even gourmets love a good treat…

Pam’s Menus:
Crispy Roasted Duck caramelized with Cherry Basil Sauce
Avocado and grapefruit salad with homemade Red French dressing
Oven roasted Asparagus

Mom made this meal and it was absolutely delicious, over the top….

Roast Duck
Roast your duck at 250 degrees for 3 hours. Take out of oven and tent with foil until ready to finish. Do not refrigerate. When ready to finish, put back in oven at 450 degrees to crisp for 20 minutes… then spread your cherry basil sauce over the bird and roast at 425 for 10 minutes to caramelize. It will be succulent and juicy on the inside, crispy on the outside.

Avocado and grapefruit salad drizzled with homemade Red French dressing (a family recipe over 100 years old.) This is a composed salad of grapefruit and avocado sections on Boston lettuce.

Oven roasted Asparagus- Roast at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Salt & Pepper to taste and butter.

Red French Dressing Recipe- Courtesy of Pam Ytterberg. This recipe was handed down from Pam’s side of the family from her mother, Elsie Tillinghast Brown.

½ Cup Vegetable Oil
¼ Cup Cider Vinegar
1/3 Cup Catsup

2 Tbsp Sugar 1 tsp Prepared Mustard
2 Tbsp Grated Onion 1 tsp Salt
Juice of ½ Lemon 1 tsp Paprika

Mix Ingredients until emulsified and serve.

Beef Tenderloin
Zucchini “Canoes” stuffed with mixed vegetables
Homemade Ciabatta Bread

Beef Tenderloin- Season with Alderwood Smoked Salt or salt of your choice. Grill to preferred rareness.

Zucchini Canoes- Hollow out zucchini horizontally and blanche. Then stuff with chopped tomatoes, garlic, zucchini & basil. Top with bread crumbs and bake at 350 degrees until heated through.

Marci’s Menu:
Pork Tenderloin sandwich on Homemade Ciabatta Bread
Mixed Greens Salad with Beefsteak Tomatoes

I can’t even begin to tell you how delicious this is…this is Marci’s own recipe and you will love it!

The Pork is marinated in an amazing orange, ginger marinade:
2 individual pork tenderloins
½ tsp Salt
½ Tbsp cracked black peppercorns
1 Tbsp minced garlic
1 Tbsp grated fresh ginger root
1 Tbsp soy sauce
2 or more to taste Tbsp brown sugar
1 Cup orange juice
1 Tbsp orange zest

Mix ingredients well and cover or place in plastic bag with the tenderloin to marinate overnight if possible or at least for 1 hour.

When ready to cook, reserve marinade. Roast or grill until cooked through. Slice in thin slices. Cook marinade on stove top until reduced by at least half. Serve over sliced tenderloin.

Next take 1/2 cup mayo & 1/2 cup yogurt and curry and mix together. Spread the curry/mayo spread liberally on ciabatta and then spread a layer of mango chutney on top of that on one of pieces of bread. Next, add slices of pork tenderloin

This was served with a salad of mixed greens and sliced, ripe, beefsteak tomatoes tossed with vinaigrette.

Kim’s Menu:
Barbequed Chicken with bourbon barbeque sauce
Roasted Corn on the Cob
Tomato Salad

This all-American meal so hit the spot! It was hot and humid out and this summer menu satisfied. It was delicious; the chicken was perfectly grilled, cooked expertly by Kim. It was moist on the inside with no dryness and a crispy delicious skin.

The Barbeque sauce is non-smokey barbeque sauce mixed with bourbon and the result is phenomenal! You could add 1 or 2 Tablespoons of brown sugar to thicken if desired.

The corn cobs were put in the oven, husks left on and roasted at 375degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Once you take the corn out the oven, corn silk slides right off and the husks do as well.

The Tomato Salad was created by cutting up chunks of beefsteak tomatoes and mixing with ground salt and pepper to taste.

We could not get enough of this meal, it was wonderful…

Susan’s Menu:
Chinese Homemade Potstickers
Chinese ribs with honey glaze
Thai Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce
Pad Thai

This was an amibitious menu for one meal but made for a lot of fun and delicious left overs! Assembling the potstickers was a group effort and a simple and fun thing to do that involves the whole party as you prepare this meal. We had a lot of fun doing this! The ribs are succulent and quite easy to make and the Satay is delicious.

1 Package round pot sticker skins
4 Cups Chicken Broth

1 lb ground pork
2 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
4 tsp soy sauce
4 tsp sherry
4 tsp sesame oil

Marinate the ground pork in the ginger, soy sauce, sherry and sesame oil for 4 hours or overnight is best.

4 Tbsp cilantro
2 cups chopped napa cabbage
4 Tbsp finely chopped green onions

Mix the cilantro, cabbage & green onions into the pork mixture. Mix well

Drop 1 Tbsp of filling into the center of the potsticker skin. Dip index finger into water and circle perimeter of potsticker wrapper. Fold wrapper over the filling to make a half circle and press closed. Sit upright with filling side on plate. To cook, heat a few Tbsp of oil in a pan, put pot stickers in hot pan and fry til bottom is golden brown. Then pour 1 cup chicken broth into pan, cover over medium heat to cook until most of liquid is gone. Remove lid and cook another minute to absorb last of liquid then remove cooked pot stickers from pan. Repeat until all potstickers are cooked.

Chinese Ribs with Honey Glaze
The basis of this recipe came from the China Moon Cookbook by Barbara Tropp, “Maltose-Glazed Baked Spareribs” but I have made numerous revisions to create an easy to use recipe. Credit for the idea goes to Barbara Tropp who I admire as a subject matter expert in Chinese cooking.

1 Rack Baby Back Ribs cut in half and put in large zip lock bag
Marinade for Ribs:
¼ cup sherry or rice wine
2 tsp peppercorns
¼ Cup chopped ginger
3/4 cup chicken stock
Pour marinade ingredients in zip lock bag and refrigerate overnight for best results

Honey Glaze: ( You may want to double this recipe because it is so good. The quantity below makes just enough for one recipe)
¼ cup Hoisin Sauce
¼ cup Sherry
2-3 Tbsp Brown Sugar
2 tsp Chinese Chile Sauce
¼ cup Honey
1/3 cup finely chopped green onions
1 Tbsp finely chopped or grated garlic
1 Tbsp finely chopped or grated fresh garlic

Put all the ingredients for the glaze in a pot on stove, mix and simmer for approx 3 minutes. Remove from stove and reserve for glazing ribs. As it cools it will thicken.

Preheat over to 425 degrees. Remove ribs from marinade and discard ziplock bag with marinade. Rub Ribs (top and bottom of rack) with a mixture of 3 Tsps brown sugar, 1 tsp salt, ½ tsp pepper, 1 Tbsp garlic.

Place ribs meat side up on cookie sheet and cook at 425 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven and coat top and sides of ribs with Honey Glaze, letting it pool a little on top of ribs. Save extra glaze to pour over ribs at dinner. Put ribs back in oven at 425 degrees and cook 10 to 15 minutes until glaze has carmelized. ( You can expect that the glaze that drips off ribs onto pan will burn and smoke when you are cooking but the glaze on the ribs won’t burn so that’s fine.) Remove from oven and let rest for 10 to 15 minute and then cut into individual ribs. Serve on platter, drizzle extra glaze over ribs. Garnish with green onions.

Chicken or Pork Satay
Bamboo Skewers- soak in water so they don’t burn on grill
1 ½ lbs pork or chicken – slice into 3 or 4 inch strips

½ to ¾ Can Coconut Milk
1 Stalk Fresh Lemon Grass sliced or crushed
3 cloves garlic thinly sliced or grated
½ tsp seeded and finely chopped chile peppers
1 or 2 Tbsp Fish Sauce depending on individual taste
½ tsp sugar
1 Tbsp Curry Powder

Put chicken or pork strips into marinade overnight ideally or at least 2 hours.

Thread meat onto skewers and grill, turning occasionally until cooked. Placed cooked skewers on platter and serve with peanut dipping sauce.

Peanut Sauce:
½ cup canola oil
¼ tsp curry powder
1 can coconut milk
3 ½ Tbsp Brown Sugar
1 cup chunky peanut butter or less, (gauge consistency of sauce, start with ½ cup and you can always add more if you want thicker.)
3 kaffir lime leaves or 1 Tbsp lime juice
1-3 Tbsp fish sauce to taste
1 Tbsp red curry paste (this is hot so use caution, start with ½ Tbsp and taste before adding entire tablespoon)
2 tsp Tamarind powder or paste ( if you don’t have this, or can’t find ingredient just skip it or add 1 tsp lime juice.)

On medium heat on stove, heat oil. Add curry, coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar and curry powder. Stir frequently, add peanut butter, tamarind, until sauce thickens. Add Kaffir lime leaves and remove from heat. Remove leaves when ready to serve.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Resource List: Where to Go

Resources: Where to Go…

In response to requests I’ve received from some readers, I have put together a short list of culinary resources I’ve found and go back to often. It would take weeks to research all the amazing culinary resources available to us in the U.S. and there is no inference of one being better than the other on my list. There are so many excellent resources that aren’t listed here and there is no intention of slighting them- if I had my way, I would spend my all time going around the country trying them all! This list doesn’t include all the amazing gourmet food stores out there, too many to count!

Enjoy discovering your favorites…

Cooking Classes:
Draegers- San Mateo, CA and multiple locations in the Bay Area. This is an extraordinary gourmet food store, kitchen supply store and cooking school. Draegers attracts big name chefs and the demo classes are great.

Viking Home Chef- Walnut Creek, CA

Ramekins- Sonoma, CA

Cakebread Winery- Napa, CA

California Culinary Academy- San Francisco, CA

New School for Cooking- Culver City, CA. I can’t even begin to tell you how great this place is. Not only are the workshop classes excellent, the recipes are absolutely delicious and consistently deliver.

Sur La Table- National. I took an amazing pasta making class here that changed my life. Basically, play dough for grown ups with the added bonus of being edible and delicious.

Williams Sonoma- National

Cooks of Crocus Hill- St. Paul, MN

The Ritz- National

Border Grill/Ciudad restaurants- Santa Monica & LA, CA

Delius- Long Beach, CA. Gourmet restaurant with an extraordinary chef now offering cooking classes

Prep- Seal Beach, CA. Gourmet kitchen-ware store and excellent cooking classes!

Food Writing:
If you are interested in learning about professional food writing, writing a cook book, self-publishing etc. I encourage you to sign up for a class with Dianne Jacob in the Bay Area.

Whether you want to just put together a little book of your family’s recipes and self-publish or really want to become a professional food writer/author, her writing course is excellent. Dianne addresses methods for sourcing a publisher, how to write a proposal and pitch letter, resources for self-publishing, and the how-to’s of recipe writing, writing articles etc. Dianne’s focus is also on developing your writing skills and we did several writing exercises in class which we then shared with the group.

Dianne demystifies the steps and provides you with the road map you need to start your project. Dianne is a wealth of knowledge and one of those generous people who is willing to share it all with you.

I originally found Dianne Jacob through the Writing Salon in Berkeley, CA. and she also holds classes at Book Passages in Corte Madera. You can check out her web site for more class info. Dianne is a professional journalist & editor and publishes a quarterly newsletter.

Dianne Jacob books:

Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas by Craig Priebe and Dianne Jacob. Just released in April 2008 with praise from Wolfgang Puck! This is a beautiful book and if you could eat the pages, you would-the pictures & recipes look so good.

Will Write for Food If you would like to learn more about food writing, this is an outstanding book to add to your library.

Kitchen Stores/Professional Cooking Supply Stores:
Paganos- Alameda, CA. This is one of those large, old fashioned hardware stores with the unlikely twist of having a great kitchen-ware department.

Surfas- Culver City, CA. All I have to say is hold me back! I LOVE this place. Across the street from New School for Cooking. If you’re in L.A. and love to cook this should not be missed. Easy to find on Washington at National.

The Village Gourmet- Evergreen, Colorado

The Peppercorn- Boulder, Colorado. Gorgeous, extensive selection of kitchen ware, gourmet candies, beautiful linens, etc.

Chefs Warehouse- South San Francisco, CA

East Bay Restaurant Supply- Oakland, CA

Prep- Seal Beach, CA

Penzeys- Amazing spice store. Minneapolis, Tustin and many other U.S. locations

Williams Sonoma- National

Sur La Table- National

The Japan Woodworker- Alameda, CA. This is a special place and not really a kitchen store but they specialize in high-end Japanese knives, woodworking tools etc.

Forrest Jones- San Francisco, CA. I love this place, wonderful kitchen supplies, gorgeous wicker baskets, picnic baskets, place mats, chef’s knives etc.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Lotta Dough

Who wouldn’t want to win a MILLION DOLLARS?.... That’s what I thought.

I was amazed when I read this article about the Pillsbury Company’s Baking Contest and the lovely woman who won last month. Out of 100 finalists, her peanut butter cookie recipe wowed the judges and she was the happy recipient of the grand prize.

My first reaction when I read this article was, “why on earth have I never done this contest?” And then I remembered, “oh, I don’t like to bake”… well, I would like to rescind that sentiment because for 1 million dollars, I am happy to be a little more flexible about this rule I have made for myself in the cooking department and apply the power of concentration to overcome this personality defect.

(See Link below to Pillsbury’s official website)

Since all of us love to cook or we would not be writing or reading this blog, I think we need to put our great cooking skills to work- wouldn’t you like to win big bucks? I can think of a lot of things I’d do with that money including buy a house with a great kitchen to support my cooking habit, go to Lorenza D’Medici’s cooking school at her palazzo in Tuscany, go on one of those week cooking journeys with Joanne Weir, etc.

It looks like the contest has different categories you can enter under. Since the most recent contest just ended, they don’t have the dates or rules posted yet for the next one. But check it out! Read the rules and start thinking about recipes you’ve created that might be possibilities for next year’s contest. What I love about this contest despite the fact that it involves baking (which is very detail oriented), is that it involves creativity and originality by the cook. Many of you have family recipes passed down through the generations or ones you make all the time that friends and family rave about. Now’s the time to get out the spatula and apron and start practicing!

This sort of event conjures up a feeling of a different era, circa 1960’s or 70’s when you think about a baking contest, doesn’t it? But that fact is, cooking is big business these days and what a great way to promote a brand name and public interest in a product. I’m perfectly okay with that because Pillsbury is not only making cooking fun, but they are also sharing the wealth! For some good cookie dough, they’ll give you a lot of dough.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Location, Location, Location

You read about how location is everything in the restaurant world; it's why some restaurants make it and others close anonymously... We're all pretty savvy about the "good" restaurants in town and are usually on the look out for the next "hot" one! A good location is important because it gets us there, right? Convenient, central or at least in an area that's accessible. But what brings us there, the reason for going, is the food, right?

Usually it's with anticipation that my friends and I will check out a great restaurant. The service, ambiance and (some type of available parking) all contribute to the experience, but at the end of the meal, it's the food right? That is what it's all about. We know that's true because my closest friend Angela and I will still swear by a Gordo's burrito in San Francisco and believe me, there's nothing to speak of in the way of location or ambiance when you're there- you stand in line and place your order for a fantastic burrito. You watch them place the paper thin tortilla in a steam press and then chop up the crispy and delicious carnitas, grilled beef or chicken and put it all together. No fake guacamole, no weird pretend sour cream. Only authentic ingredients with true pico de gallo and pinto or black beans that are firm and hot. We love Gordos. But again, it's all about the food, not the location.

I bring this whole thing up because I just read the most amazing article in a magazine today about a dining experience in the clouds- I know... HUH?? Okay, well, here's what it is. It is a very high end experience in Europe and South Africa 160 feet off the ground offered by a Belgian entrepreneur. You dine suspended at a large table for 22, seat belts on, with a canopy overhead. The article says for $38,000., you and 21 of your closest friends can have this dining experience....there was no mention of what the food is like. I suspect most people that sign up are doing it for the novelty of this unique experience in the sky and of course the view. Is the food incidental? I would hope not, but how hungry are you when you are swaying in the breeze on a platform, seatbelted in place with exposure to the elements? Just my opinion, but I wonder about that! No mention was made about the food actually, just a reference to "ordering in advance".. gee, what a surprise; it's not like a waiter is going to circulate menus and taking your order and then taking it back to the kitchen..or am I missing something? You're already in the sky suspended- it's not like they're going to take the platform up and down a million times to get everyone's different courses and orders.

I think this is a funny concept because this seems like something people would love to do for the novelty of dining in the sky. But what about motion sickness? And birds?? And what happens if you drop a fork?? Who on earth is going to get a little surprise on the ground when that fork lands? What happens when you shake the crumbs off your napkin or spill some water or drop your wine glass? It's seems a little humerous in a cartoon kind of way. And will you're food be hot? That's something most of us expect when we dine out unless I'm just being picky...

But here's an idea. Why not take your portion of the cost ($38K divided by 22= $1,727.) and create an alternative, amazing dining experience. Say you live in Monterey. Why not take a fabulous helecoptor ride to San Francisco, see beautiful landscape and views and maybe you'll even see a whale in the ocean if you're lucky. From there, take a limo to Gary Denko or the French Laundry in Napa and have an incredible and truly unforgettable meal. You should even have enough left over to stay at a great hotel. Sorry to rain on the parade(no pun intended since for those diners in the sky, inclement weather could "dampen" their spirits a little!) I think there are so many contributing factors to great dining, but I say, if you want to go on a ride, go to Euro Disney! Or take a balloon ride!

When comes to finding a great place to dine, my feet are planted firmly on the ground. I'm more interested in the dining experience than the ride that got me there. Location is of course important and how you got there is a contributing element, but in the end, it will always be incidental to the dining experience itself...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Decadent Cooking

My good friend Peter and I went to a cooking class at the Viking Cooking School in Walnut Creek a few weeks ago- you part of Home Chef Store. Have you been? I love this place, it is full of gorgeous cooking utensils, pots & pans and a myriad of baking tools.

I signed up for this class because the recipes sounded over the top -decadent, delicious... with recipes such as:

Lobster Cakes with Champagne Butter Sauce
Herb Crusted Beef Tenderloin Stuffed with Wild Mushrooms
Asparagus with Roasted Shallot Pancetta Vinaigrette
Blue Cheese Souffle
Mixed Greens with Walnuts & Port
Key Lime Cranberry Cheesecake with Chocolate Crumb Crust

I know...don't you wonder who thought of all these recipes, whatsmore putting them all in one class? This is an ambitious amount of recipes which equates to a lot cooking in a small amount of time but when we signed up for this we didn't realize what that really meant... good thing Peter is an accomplished cook because without advanced cooking skills this would have been a tough class to master! We were speed cooking trying to get the entire menu done by the scheduled class end and our partners, (the students we were paired with) seemed to have little culinary experience. You could tell this by one woman's attempt to finely cut herbs with a massive chef knife; Peter rescued her by getting her the appropriate 4" knife needed for the job. I love Peter because he always maintains a calm demeanor even under pressure- so when the knives were flying with all our cooking and the unexperienced woman was wielding a huge butcher knife, he simply walked over, removed it from her hand and gave her the proper knife. With relief she took the knife and those around her were secretly relieved as well.

With that being said, Peter whipped up the egg whites for the souffle, I browned the duxelle mixture and stuffed the tenderloin with it. Have you ever done that before? Okay, so here's what you do- you take a knife sharpener- you know, that round, cylindrical spear and poke a hole the long way horizontally through your beef. Work the spear in circular motions to create a large space in the beef and then stuff your mushroom duxelle mixture into that space, the entire length of the roast. From there, you roll the beef in the herb mixture, brown it then put it in the oven for 20 minutes. What you have when you are done is nothing short of a masterpiece. When you cut the meat into filet mignon sized slices, you see the gorgeous cross section of red meat with herb crust and the core of mushroom filling. We'd been standing and race-cooking at this point for 2.5 hours so we were ready to dive in!

This alone with a salad would have been enough but coupled with the lobster cakes which were unbelieveable with the champagne butter sauce, and the airy yet thick blue cheese souffle left us weak at the knees. It would be unfair to post the recipes since they were created by the Viking Cooking School so I encourage you to check this place out if you want great instruction and superlative recipes.

The end of the meal introduced the unlikely Key Lime Cheesecake for dessert and you know what? It was amazing. I couldn't have been more surprised as were most of the students. You have to keep in mind, we were really full. We'd had a very rich meal, with one too-many courses- kind of like Monty Python with the, "One thin mint" scene. We just didn't think we could do it. But somehow, we managed because it was so good!

The notion of creating menus that inspire romance, that are decadent and rich is one that most people only dream of doing or more likely than not you'd just go out to a restuarant and purchase said meal. But, if you're an experienced cook and want to wow your guests or create an decadent meal for 2, have fun and search for recipes that inspire. We did, and this class provided us with a variety of recipes we'll be able to use time and again for special occasion cooking.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Back To The Salt Mines

Back to the Salt Mines

Ever wonder where salt comes from? Where would we be without it? It has always been an essential in cooking, preserving, freezing, seasoning. Now, of course we all know salt comes from the sea. But in my world, great salts come from gourmet web sites, stores & farmer’s markets.

Growing up, we always had Kosher Salt and Morton’s Iodized Salt in the house. I remember as a little girl looking at the crystals in the salt jar containing the kosher salt and observing the flaky, rectangular shapes of them. You could dip your finger in the jar so one or two crystals would stick and then let the flakes dissolve on the tip of your tongue- Sharp and memorable in flavor.

Flash forward to today, in the haute cuisine world of the 21st Century and salt has taken on a whole new dimension adding excitement and creativity to cooking. Collecting salts today is almost inevitable if you are a cook, starting innocently with the graduation from regular salt to Sea Salt from France (Remember? That used to be the hot new salt) From there as I go to stores like Williams Sonoma, Sur la Table and the myriad gourmet cooking stores in the Bay Area and Farmers Markets salt has become the sexy new ingredient.

I find these ingredients irresistible, seductive- they beckon you at the store or market to take a closer look and imagine the possibilities. Because I have an active imagination and also love to cook, I have been lured by these glamorous blends of salts and have without realizing it become a collector of salts. I used to be this way with olive oils too with the broad varieties available from around the world and the impact they have on flavoring a meal.

So, I took a look to see what salts I have and was a little surprised at the number of jars I have amassed! I liken this to my olive oil phase or to my obsession with shoes. In the shoe world, there are sling backs, sexy sandals, pumps, flats, boots, you name it in my closet- each with a plan in mind…and so it is with salts.

Here is a snapshot of the gorgeous salts I have collected and what I’ve done with them so far-

Vanilla Fleur De Sel: I just made a pork tenderloin using a rub of this decadent Vanilla Salt blended with ground garlic and ground ginger powder and white pepper. Grill your tenderloin till browned then put in oven for about 20-25 minutes to finish cooking it. You can spread some pomegranate syrup or delicious chutney I get at the SF Farmers Market made with cherries, apricots & Pine nuts over the pork when you put it in the oven to create a caramelized glaze. Outrageously good.

Truffle Salt: This is unbelievable on mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs with chives & parmesan cheese. Quite addictive…this salt is made with black truffles.

NorthWest Alder Smoked Sea Salt: Smoked over Alder Wood, this dark brown salt needs a good meat roast to support its robust flavor

Fumee De Sel: This delicious Salt is smoked over oak barrels with Chardonnay. Elegant salt, great on ribs, lamb.

Garlic Salt: Great on popcorn, grilled chicken, the list goes on.

Rosemary Salt: Great on rack of lamb, roasted chicken etc.

Sea Salt: Use your salt mill to grind some sea salt over a salad of mixed greens with a home made vinaigrette of lemon juice, olive oil and garlic for a great salad.

Kosher Salt: Great anywhere you need salt

Black Sea Salt: This is a gorgeous finishing salt to use on white rice. Try making Chicken Marbella and using this salt and black sesame seeds on your rice side dish, it creates drama and beauty to this already sumptuous dish.

Hawaiian Red Sea Salt:

Parsley Salt: Nice on Pasta

Mixed Salt with dried fruit, citrus peel, spices, vanilla bean, dark chocolate, grape must & cane sugar: I found this on an Italian foods website and this mysterious & decadent salt requires thought on how to use. It is fascinating.

Now I know there’s another level for salt foodies- home blended salts. I have dabbled a little bit in this area mostly informally improvising to suit my own taste and the recipe I am creating:

Salt with zest of lemon and parsley
Salt blended with turbanado sugar & Espelete

I am loving my love-affair with flavored salts, and used with different food pairings and sauces it can elevate y our cooking to a very different level!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pandora's Box

Pandora’s Box

If you’re like me, I can’t go into a specialty grocery store without spending double what I would have spent had I gone to Trader Joe’s or Safeway. I love Trader Joes and Safeway, they both fulfill exact shopping goals when I am in my regular routine. This is not to say that both stores don’t have extraordinary selections as well as high end breads and specialty items. But when I’m entertaining or having guests over for the weekend, I feel I must splurge and go to Draegers or Whole Foods.

Both stores were clearly designed by true foodies, people who have an ardent love of cooking and as important, the culinary tools & gadgets that make cooking possible. I always go into Draegers pretending that I am just running in to get a nice cake, (remember? I don’t do cakes) or some fabulous bread or cheeses. But there is a suspicious, ulterior motive to this shopping expedition, cloaked in food shopping- it is a vehicle to get me to the fabulous cookware department up stairs.

I casually look around on the ground floor of the food portion of the store but keep glancing at the escalator going up to the elaborate, heavily stocked cookware department that lies above. I finally take the leap feeling justified that I have entered the store to really do some grocery shopping even though I secretly know this journey to Draegers was so that I could be naughty and splurge on unnecessary but coveted cooking tools.

Does anybody really need an extra grater? I personally think that’s entirely beside the point. The fact is, cooking tools conjure up the possibilities of great cooking. Holding a micro plane grater or stainless steel box grater in my hand immediately instills confidence- I mean I actually feel more sure that I have a fighting chance of cooking something right if I have the right tools.

So, before you think this fluff-ball doesn’t know the first thing about making due, I did live for a year in corporate housing in 1999 in L.A. The accommodations I had were basic at best and very little was provided to make the apartment functional. I do know that it is entirely possible to live without even the most basic cooking tools.

Here’s what I mean:

Need a rolling pin? Wine Bottle
Need a Mallet? Wine Bottle
Cookie Cutter? Wine Bottle
Pitcher? Wine Bottle
Potato Masher? Wine Bottle

You get the idea, pretty amazing how versatile a wine bottle can be. I didn’t even mention that a wine bottle also acts as a decanter for wine : ).

Putting aside this small piece of martyrdom in my life, I completely glory in the abundance of relevant cooking tools and the kitchen equipment I have acquired. But here’s where Pandora’s Box enters the picture. One is not enough. Once you go down the path of acquiring kitchen tools there’s no end in sight.

It starts with upgrading your basic tools to higher end models- maybe small ones that have more comfortable grips like the OXO vegetable peeler so your hands don’t get cut when you’re peeling that potato. Once that’s done, suddenly your old Teflon cookie sheets need to be replaced. Then that 10 piece pots & pans set you got at Woolworth’s in 1976 needs to go- it’s dented and peeling and plus you just plain old want a new set.

From there you graduate to fine knives- cutlery in the cooking world. I could write a poem about my Shun, Santoko knife I love it so much. Or maybe a limerick is better:

There once was a knife by Shun,
Who knew exactly what needed to be done,
It sliced, diced and cut
It did everything but
Put an end to this terrible pun.

I know that was bad, but I think it’s important to be spontaneous and see where things go.

From there, you- like me are wandering into Draeger’s high end territory of exquisite kitchen supplies, china, glassware, cookbooks, and gadgets.

You know what’s next right? Yes, Pandora’s Box is pretty big. You’re now entering the consumer paradise of electrics:

Food Processor
Immersion Blender
Pasta Maker
Bread Machine

The problem I see when you graduate to this level of consumerism is that all those tools you bought earlier aren’t really needed anymore. When you get to the electric tools category, they pretty much do everything for you! Again, entirely beside the point. It is pure fun to use these things and I think everyone would agree that it is okay to have an exception to the rule.

It may seem like all this is a complete digression from where I first started but everything is related. It’s like the chicken and the egg riddle. What comes first? A good recipe? The ingredients? The tools you’ll need to cook with? Let’s assume they all tie together and come in a big shiny box with a nice ribbon wrapped around it. Pandora’s Box.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake

Let Them Eat Cake

You know how it seems that you're either a baker or a cook? Not that you're not capable of doing both, but you have a natural tendency toward one or the other...

I bring this up, because I figured this out the hard way with one too many cake, "situations." Now, with concentration I can make great brownies and cookies, but the precision that's called upon for baking- using exact measurements, sifting and such is too complicated and detailed for me. I've always felt more is better when it comes to cooking- a little more butter, seasoning etc which flies in the face of the true baker's technique.

I have had more than one cake go south and I bring this topic up because I just heard another cake-gone-wrong story from my Mom. She is an excellent cook and is one of the rare few who is a both-ee- she can bake and cook with equally great talent. I learned to cook from my Mom and she, to me, can do it all in the kitchen. Her cake gone wrong story had to do with a shared recipe from a wonderful friend; without me knowing how this happened, let's just say numbers were transposed and 1 cup of flour led to 4 or something like that and it went downhill (literally) from there.

Here is a list of my greatest cake fiascos. I am listing these not just to tell you my story but to remind myself if I ever get the wise idea to ever make a cake again, I will refer to this memo as a reminder of why not to do it...

Cake #1) Basic Yellow Cake for a birthday cake. I won't go into too much detail. Let's just say I forgot to mix the eggs in the batter and realized it happily within 10 minutes of having put the cake into the oven. It had started baking but I surmised that it was still liquid enough to whip in the forgotten eggs. So I did. I don't think I can go on with this story but you get the idea, right?

Cake #2) Swedish Door Stop: I'm calling this the doorstop recipe because I don't remember the name of this Swedish Coffee Cake and after I finished this yeast dough disaster, it resembled a brick of concrete and had no resemblence to a lovely coffee cake- at all. I would have thrown it in the wastebasket but it might have cracked the floor tile when it landed so instead, I placed it gently in the bin and said farewell.

Cake #3) Meringue Cake: I'm tired of people telling me how easy it is to make a meringue. Things seemed like they were going well. I made two fluffy meringue discs that I blobbed onto the cookie sheet to bake. The idea is I would have a 2 layer meringue cake that I would fill with sweetened whipped cream and chocolate chips. Well, I don't know what went wrong but they were flat and overall the cake was a flop- no pun intended. At the time, I blamed it on the recipe- you know, one of those great recipes you see in a magazine with a Hollywood photo showing a movie- star cake?

But you know, the problem was really me, the non-cake, non-baker girl.

Now, I know there are many people who are not only accomplished bakers but people who've taken baking to the another level. Artistry combined with baking to create fun, imaginative, irresistable, delicious baked goods. We know they're out there or there wouldn't be any bakeries in the world or cookies- we'd all be eating rice with a little sugar thrown on it and would think that was great.

My good friend Heather is one of these amazing people. She bakes using molds, creating adorable cakes shaped like cartoon characters- and this was before the TV show with the star cake bakers.

She is an original. She paints with icing, frosts like Leonardo with a paint bruch and makes the best sour cream pound cake in the universe. Her talent comes from within and her cakes are something to behold. She's the "fun" Mom, who all the kids love because she creates to bring joy to her children. Heather has patience, detail orientation and a large dose of creativity that makes her final product very special.

I take it back. There is one cake I make well and because of the initial success I have had with this, I have made it repeatedly. It's an olive oil cake. Now, don't run away, it's great. I don't want anyone to get the idea that I'm a baker because of this confession, this is an anomoly. I am really a cook.

I know, you're thinking olive oil cake? I hear you, I thought the same thing. But it's wonderful... I got the recipe from a cooking class I attended in Sonoma and I have made adaptions to the recipe to suit my taste. I top the cake with toasted pine nuts and serve it with a small scoop of vanilla bean gelato.

So there you go. I say, "let them eat cake", I myself will be buying it, not baking it. Happily the world has enough bakers to feed the non-baking cooks.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

San Francisco Farmer's Market

If you even remotely love food or are passionate about cooking, this market is the supreme gourmet's shopping paradise!

The San Francisco Farmer's Market is massive and encircles the San Francisco Ferry Building which is the crown jewel of the gourmet city's epicenter. With high-end aritsan cheeses and breads, wines, fresh yogurts and truffle butter, exquisite chocolates from Reccheitti and robust and elegant McEvoy olive oils. The crowds circulate among all these precious stores and shop as if it's Thanksgiving in July! I walk around in dazed awe of my surroundings- so prolific in its' wealth of foodstuffs and bounty of produce and gourmet restaurants in this beautifully restored historic building.

Walking outside, you are caught up immediately in the energy of the crowd as they circulate among the farmers booths. You see tables laden with pots of fresh honey, golden bottles of local California olive oils. Jars of chutney and preserves beckon you coming in traditional flavors, cherry and apricot with almond, and thick strawberry preserves. The most difficult event of the morning is not buying everything!

Vegetables are in abundance with stalks of thick, round brussel sprouts- green & firm, leafy swiss chard, bundles of spinach and green onions! Baskets with late season heirloom tomatoes draw you in with rainbow hughes of gold, orange, purple & yellow. Samples are prolific and as the throngs of people walk by the booths, the reach out to try a slice of crisp, sweet apple, chunks of tomatoes, pieces of cheese. Crescents of peaches & plums, all dripping in their juices provide a refreshing, sweet taste that satisfies.

At this time of year, Frog Hollow Farms, the famed premium peach farm offers table of fat, gorgeous pears. The large round apple pears are the size of a softball and the varieties of pears is impressive. You also see packets of dried peaches and apricots, nuts and other fruits to choose from; truly a delight. Nearby is a booth where bourbon, pecan pies are being sold. The adorable man selling these gave me a sample. After the decadent bite melted in my mouth, I looked at him as commented that it was so rich, you could seduce someone with a pie like this! The purveyor blushed marvelously and my friend who also had a sample laughed. We all agreed.

The range of products for sale at the market is broad with vacuum sealed salmon, fresh eggs, handmade soaps and geranium and lavendar salt scrubs to choose from. Also found near these gorgeous items are blended gourmet salts and sugars mixed with rosemary, lavendar, vanilla and mint!

What makes the Farmer's Market such a wonderful experience is the people who represent their special items. I love taling to the lady at the market who sells fresh, handmade butter and cheeses. When I first saw her, I was buying unsalted butter to practice making compound butters- (something I recently learned about when I took a cooking class taught by famed, local TV chef Joanne Weir- a talent who I personally feel embodies the spirit and joy of cooking like no other.) I was there with a friend and we were quite excited about the project:
  • Butter blended with honey and toasted pecans or cashews
  • Butter blended with blue cheese and truffle salt
I saw the butter lady recently when I was buying more butter. She remembered me and asked how the project went. "Overall well", I said. "The honey butter is decaden, and good enough to eat all by itself causing me to acti with restraint when I take it out of the refrigerator! The blue cheese butter was not as successful, maybe I went a little too crazy with the cheese. It didn't melt as well as I would have liked." She looked philosopical and gave the pragmatic suggestion to try again! Good idea! Her butter is rich, dense, well worth buying more...

The goat chees lady was interesting. She owns her own herd of goats in Northern California and has dedicated herselft to their care and production of milk. Se produces her own cheeses, which stands out as significantly different than the soft, creamy mounds of goat cheese you buy at the store. With texture and shape similar to a wheel of parmesan with ash crust, the results of her labor is truly high-end, artisinal goat cheese with a dense, hard texture and a rich, smokey tast. I noticed with surprise that she also produced her own sausage...goat. Intrigued, I bought one of them, but to date have not been brave enough to try it.

Truly an artist & craftsperson, she is generous with her time as she answers questions on her technique for producing her cheeses to a rapt audience of gourmet foodies clustered around her booth. You could see the appreciation and respect emanating from the the small group of people listening to her. They were peppering her with questions, fascinated with her craftsmanship and the labor involved with producing such fine cheeses.

Each time I come to this market I am filled with excitement and anticipation of what I might discover and who I might speak with. I wonder if the salt purveyor will be back on my next visit so I can purchase that rosemary salt that winked at me as I was leaving the market on my last visit. Being here is inspiring, energizing. Truly a celebration of California's bounty and the potential of great cooking to come!