Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Time flies when your having fun?

WOW, I cannot believe it has been this long since my last entry, close to 2 months.  I so look forward to the holidays every year, and then just as quickly as I was looking forward to them beginning, I begin to wait anxiously for them to be over. This year, in particular, was more eventful then usual but completely self imposed!
We begin with Thanksgiving. Every year for as long as I can remember, we head to a sleepy little town called Bass Lake, California.  There we are eventually met up with the rest of my husband's brothers, wives, kids, friends, and parents.  We typically have around 20 or so total, so it is active and fun.  I elected myself chief cook in charge of the Thanksgiving meal.  I am getting quite organized, which is some times worse then being scattered, because I constantly do not trust that I am on top of everything.  Needless to say, I have lists, time tables, and do my best to prep ahead of time.  Here are some of my examples.
This shows my mise en place(basically prepped foods), all ready for their prospective applications.  I do this prep work the day before, label and place in the ziplock bags and use as needed. I make my mac and cheese the day before and the cranberry sauce ahead of time too. I like to unwrap, clean and leave my turkey open in the refrigerator the night before to dry the skin out abit (makes for a crispier skin).You can use fresh bread as well for stuffing, cut up and leave out overnight in roasting pan to dry out a bit, perfect for stuffing the bird.

The day of I like to use fresh veggies as the base for the bird rather then using a rack.  It keeps the bird from sitting in the fat and drippings, and adds such fabulous flavor to the drippings to make a really terrific gravy.  My vegetable base consists of carrots, celery, onion, garlic clove, a couple of shallots, bay leaves, and the crowning touch, fennel, which adds such a great sweetness and full flavor. I stuff my bird ALWAYS! I find this is a very midwestern thing, and being from Illinois I fit the bill. Stuffing is best in the bird because of the internal juices just add so much flavor. I do season the inside of the bird first before adding the stuffing, which is very a very traditional sage, butter, celery, chicken stock, onion and bread crumb stuffing  I chop fresh sage and blend with softened butter to put between the skin and flesh of the turkey then get ready to prepare the bird.
The actual recipe for the bird is a take off of a Martha recipe. Preheat the oven to 450F. You melt a stick of butter and about a half to full bottle of white wine and warm in a sauce pan till butter is melted.  Take cheesecloth and fully soak in the liquid. then cover the turkey with the cheesecloth, trying your best to cover the drumsticks and thighs.You roast the bird for a half an hour at the high heat and then lower to 350F for another 2 1/2 hours then remove the cheesecloth.  Cook for another hour or so, looking for 165F internal temperature. While cooking I do baste maybe every 45 minutes or so, and if I am short on liquid I use a bit of chicken stock.  I also use the neck of the turkey and usually purchase addtional necks, wings or turkey legs and place in a pot with onion, garlic, celery, carrot and water to let simmer for the day to make a flavorful stock for the gravy.

Once the turkey is done, I try to get out the stuffing right away and put into a oven safe dish. Cover the turkey lightly with foil to rest for about a half and hour and while that is happening use some of the pan drippings to moisten the stuffing and then put in a 350 oven for about 20 minutes to heat thru completely. As soon as possible I move the turkey to a cutting surface and cover and then I strain off the pan drippings so I can make the gravy, which I do in a seperate skillet.  I draw a couple of tablespoons off the top of the pan drippings, which is the fat and use that with a couple of tablespoons of flour and heat in a pan till blended and just coloring. Whisk in the  rest of the pan drippings, less as much of that fat as possible, the stock that you have been simmering all day- to total about 2 cups and bring to a boil which will cause it to thicken. Salt and pepper to taste, you will be pleased with that extra something special that fennel adds.

I feel after all these years I have the turkey thing down ok,  I have all sorts of things to try, brining, low temp cooking, frying, the usual suspects, but this method seems to do ok and produce a moist turkey.  HOWEVER, if you find your turkey to be a bit dry(it is very difficult to get cooked dark meat without drying out the white meat) then take your roasting pan, now empty and put enough chicken stock or remaining turkey stock to cover the bottom of the pan.  Place the cut turkey in the roasting pan and cover with foil.  If you are worried that it is getting to cold, the oven should be off but still warm , put the roasting pan in there, keep the door cracked.  You don't want to cook the meat more, but you do want to keep it warm. The addtional moisture really does help to plump up a turkey that may have gone a bit past, and no one is the wiser. 

The best advice I can give is don't give up.  Every year you learn more, you see what worked and what didn't.  AND I feel more important then the turkey is the cranberry sauce, gravy and mashed potatoes, because no matter how dry or flavorless your turkey may or may not be, if you succeeded with the sides, no one will be the wiser.  TRUST ME! 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

BALANCE and the Zig Zag Workout

This is a post that is not a recipe or about food, well maybe not about but because of it. Balance is a very important thing in life, and it has only taken me 46 years to realize it. If you love to cook as much as I do, you must balance that with activity.  Sounds obvious doesn't it?  All things great in theory, don't always equate the actions they intend, but this year I have made conscience efforts in this area, ACTIVITY.  I though I would share my journey, my thoughts and my ideas thus far.

So you can go out and spend thousands of dollars on the equipment, like my elyptical trainer and my treadmill. I think I spent less on my first car then I did on those two pieces of equipment! Don't get me wrong, the are terrific , but the realization hit when I went for a walk with my husband and after months of 5 or 6 days a week, 45 - 60 minute workouts, HIGH impact, and the first hill I took I thought I would DIE! And the moral of that story is there is no replacement for the ACTUAL thing, and bonus points, vitamin D, fresh air and commune with nature a bit. Think of this this way, our bodies are a well manufactured machine, and if you think about all the investments we have made into them, food, clothing, shelter alone, we could have bought enough machinery to fill 100 gyms, so why not work on that investment, our own machine using our own machine to improve it! 

I am very fortunate, I live on a 100 acre avocado and citrus ranch.  There are endless grove roads and combinations of trails to take, hills and flat areas. And yet it still becomes a bit monotonous so I started to experiment and I think I came up with something fun that anyone can do anywhere.  I call it the zig zag. The zig zag is really just that, instead of walking a straight line you zig zag your walk, for every step you would have taken forward, depending on the width of your path, you take extra steps by zig zagging.  There are some advantages to this, first of all you can have a shorter distance of a walk and still get the steps in, you work different muscles by the pivots you make, if you are going up or down hills you can cut down on the grade, which for me and not so terrific knees, is a bit of a relief.  I also do a zig zag that is like a side step, which causes you to push off and work your inner thighs too. Now the downside, people think you have been nipping at the eggnog, but I don't care, it makes it a little more interesting.  

In any case, finding balance in my life is a never ending quest, as I am sure there are many who join me in it. Juggling family, business, and whatever else gets thrown in our direction tends to make me feel like a baseball player waiting for the perfect pitch, wishing I had someone giving me signals to give the heads up, but then again, sometimes the fun is more in the quest then in the destination!

So get out there, find some balance in your life with the zig zag!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Good ole Cheesy Mac n Cheese

This one is for Kim, my other lobe! I do a mac and cheese for Thanksgiving every year and it truly satisfies all walks, meat eaters, ketchup lovers and vegetarians! I have been doing it for so long by taste, touch and site, I had never really written it down, but my family will be thankful today, since I decided it was time to write the recipe and the best way is to make it and measure as I go along, So here goes!

1 1/2 pound of macaroni noodles (6 cups dry)
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1/4 cup flour
4 cups liquid, I like 1 heavy cream and 3 of whole milk
1/4 tsp pepper ( I prefer white pepper only because it doesn't show in the sauce)
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp nutmeg preferably fresh grated
pinch cayenne
8 cups cheese of your choice
optional bread crumbs (or toasted bread cut up in small croutons)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan

Prepare the macaroni according to the package directions, but be sure to err on the side of al dente or just under fully done, it will be recooked when the mac and cheese is baked and you don't want it to be a mushy noodle.  Strain and set aside.  In a large pot, I like to use a small stock pot, melt the butter over med high heat, when it is just about melted , add the flour and turn down to medium and use a whisk to mix together, it should be a bit more liquid then a paste.  The key is to cook the floury taste out of the flour and get a little color, the technical term here is we are making a roux, a light one.  It should be the color of lightly toasted white bread.  At this point I add one cup of the liquid, whisking the whole time.  It will start to thicken and as soon as that one cup is incorporated, add the rest of the liquid and whisk, whisk, whisk.  You know the thing I think that is missing in cook books are instructions that we can relate to if we have never done anything like this in our life, or the "why" of what we are asked to do.  So I am trying to make sure I give those explanations.  Why you whisk is you don't want it to burn on the bottom of the pan, and milk products will scald and it is not an attractive flavor for mac and cheese, BUT you must bring the mixture to a boil or it won't thicken properly, so it is important to give this mixture your full attention. The technical term of this sauce is a bechamel and it is a mother sauce, used often as a base to create other sauces just like the one we are making.  Once it is bubbly and thickened, turn the heat to low, keep that whisk handy, and add in the spices, whisking after each addition.  Make sure it is fully mixed and turn off the heat.  Add your cheese and now you want to stir with a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula works well.   Stir to make sure everything is incorporated.  It will be thick and cheesy.
I like to add the noodles to my pot, but if your pot isn't large enough, put your noodles in your casserole dish and pour the cheese sauce over. Either way, mix the noodles with the sauce well and get into your casserole dish.

Now here is where you can get creative.  You can sprinkle the Parmesan on top that simple or you can do the cheese and breadcrumbs, or breadcrumbs and the cheese, either way dot with a bit of butter or drizzle with a vegetable oil before baking.  The other way to go is to cut the crusts off of half a loaf of white bread.  Toast and then cut into small crouton shape.  Spread Parmesan cheese, spread croutons and then dot with some butter or drizzle oil before baking. You can also add a couple tblsps of truffle oil to the mac and stir well before toppings.
As far as the baking process goes, it is 375 degrees for about 40 minutes, covered with foil for 20 minutes and uncover for that last 20.   Cook until bubbly and lightly browned.
Lets chat about cheese.  There are many choices you can make. and 8 cups can give you so many choices of combinations.  My combination of choice goes like this.  I like a Gruy√®re for its nutty flavor, fontina for its creaminess, monterey jack for the melty, sharpness, a sharp cheddar for its nutty, sharp flavor, romano for the sweetness and the Parmesan for the salty nutty flavor.  I use the first 5 for the cheese sauce and the last for the top.  However, I have done many different cheeses.  When I am doing this for a kid party, I use cheddar, mozzarella and Velveeta cheese.  Sometimes I do a lower calorie version so I use the shredded lowfat cheeses.
A couple of notes. You notice I added no salt in this recipe.  I am a firm believer in tasting, the problem is you can taste this thing all along, but the Parmesan is pretty salty so I am concerned about telling anyone to salt, but here is the thing, I salt the bechamel before adding the cheese.  I add about a tsp of kosher salt.  If you taste the sauce before the salt and then after, you will see how the salt accentuates all the spices you added, however, it is really easy to over salt so IF you decide to try to add salt at this point, maybe go 1/2 tsp or even a 1/4 and as you go along and make this recipe again you will know it was too much or not enough.
My final note is the additions you could make if you really wanted to.  To the point that the sauce is the cheese sauce, you could add green chiles, bell pepper and/or some of your favorite salsa for a spicy southwestern kick, also sub in some pepper jack cheese for some or all of the cheese..  You could saute ham or pancetta and add that to the cheese sauce for really unique flavor.   You can really cut back on calories and substitute some of the liquids for chicken stock.  Add some fresh herbs to the bread crumbs for a really fresh take.  The bottom line is don't be afraid of trying new things. It is only food, doesn't work out, do it a different way next time.  No one is perfect and no one does it perfect every time, so trust you instincts, and make sure you are tasting as you go.  Remember, strong flavors, like salt, pepper, mustard, they can all get a little stronger with heat, so be sparing, you can always add after cooking.
Give it a try and let me know how it is goes!  Good eating!

Sunny in California

Funny, games are being rained out, snow in the Rockies, but here in Southern California, we are touching the 90 degree mark. I still have tomatoes and peppers in my garden so it was a good day for a cool, refreshing Gazpacho! This is my garden and you can see the beds are sparse but there is still some things going on in there.
So I thought I would share this recipe because it is so easy and delicious and you can take it and add, subtract whatever you want to give your own twists.
2 cucumbers, peeled and cut into a dice
1 cup of diced carrot
1/2 of a large red onion, diced
2 bell peppers,. diced you decide on the colors you like
3 stalks of celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, minced
1/4 cup smoked sweet paprika
1 tsp fresh ground pepper
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
2 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1 - 2 tbsp horseradish
5 - 10 dashes of your favorite hot sauce.
1/4 fresh chopped parsley and basil, combined
1 bottle of your favorite tomato juice or vegetable juice, about 8 cups
good drizzle of you favorite Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Cut up all the vegetables so they are the same size, I like a 1/4 to 1/2 inch dice and mince the garlic and jalapeno really small, you want the flavor not to take a bite of them, you could even grate them if you like. Put them all in a container that you can cover, add the remaining ingredients except for the tomato juice, herbs and oil. Let the vegetables sit for about 15 minutes to let all those flavors sit together.  Add the tomato juice and herbs, stir well, cover and refrigerate. It is best to let it sit overnight so the flavor can fully develop. Give a  nice big drizzle of your olive oil and stir. Taste and then decide if you want more pepper or if you want to add salt. Serve as is, with crusty bread or really great with bbq'd shrimp!

Some of the variations include adding fennel, chopped fresh tomatoes, avocado or jicama.  Some of the traditional approaches include adding a couple of slices to the juice before adding to the vegetables and place it in the blender to add some thickness or adding some of the chopped vegetables to the juice in a blender for the same purpose. Another interesting addition is popcorn!  Try this one anytime, it is FABULOUS

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dark Sweet Cherry Dressing

Ok Laura this is for you. I make this very wonderful dressing that is easy to do and always gets a great response. 12 oz jar of Cherry Preserves (strawberry works well too)
1 cup balsamic dressing, I use a cherry flavored one
1/2 - 1 cup of brown sugar the preserves, balsamic and 1/2 cup of brown sugar in a sauce pan, a reduction sauce pan if you have one.  Bring to a boil and then turn your burner to low and keep it at a simmer, stirring often,  for about 1/2 hour till reduced by about a cup, it should leave you with about 1 - 1 1/2 cup liquid. At this point, taste - carefully cause it is hot- to check the sweetness level.  You want to have a bit of tartness, but this is it so make sure it is not too tart to have on a salad.  If you decide to add sugar stir and cook a bit longer just to incorporate, and then turn off the heat and let it cool. As it cools, it will thicken to a syrupy consistency. At this point, you can use it (see below for a suggestion) or put in a container and store in the fridge for later use.

As a suggestion for a use, I usually get some field greens, washed and dried well.  Take a tablespoon or so of some good quality oil, I prefer avocado oil, but a good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil will do and dress the greens.  Add a pinch of salt and pepper and using the tools that God gave you and get your hands in there and toss well. At this point I like to add some cheese, my favorites are creamy Gorgonzola or a Cambozola  cheese, but the last time I did this salad I took a roll of goat cheese and sliced it into 1/4 inch slices. I like the contrast of sweet from the dressing and the pungency of these cheeses.  If you like the goat cheese idea here is what  I did.  I dipped it into a store bought bread crumb and coated completely. I melted a tablespoon of butter and about a tablespoon or so of oil and just browned the slices and put on a paper towel to remove any excess oil.  Now back to the salad, I love to use candied nuts, pecans for me. Now for the drizzle of the cherry dressing.  Use enough to make sure you get the taste in every bite.  If you did the goat cheese, put your round on top at this point and time to eat!

Ok Laura so I thought about your problem, which was the dressing was so thick and it is true it is thick like a syrup or jam.  I have added it on my salad in spoonfuls after being dressed with the oil and then allowed each person to sort of toss it all together, but last night I had a thought. I took a couple tablespoons of the oil in a dish and added the dressing and stirred till it was fully incorporated, it took a while but it did thin out the dressing to make it more spreadable.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner!

There are not too many things more perfect then a properly roasted chicken, but it is always nice to find a new way to do an old thing. I had this thought one day that I would like to try to butterfly a chicken.  I have seen it done on cooking shows and it intimidated me but I figure, what the heck, it is only a chicken, what's the worst that can happen? 
Start by taking the chicken and place it back side up.  Take your kitchen shears, and it helps to have sharp ones, and cut along both sides of the back from neck to tail and remove the back bone. Flip the chicken over and  press down on the the chicken to flatten. I then make a paste of chopped garlic, shallots, fresh herbs of your choosing, juice and zest of one or two lemons, salt, pepper and some oil. Lift the skin gently to cause a separation between flesh and skin and stuff some of the mixture in the pocket.  Take the remaining mixture and if necessary add more oil to make it possible to rub over the exterior of the chicken, all sides all parts. Refrigerate and let it marinate for at least 3 hours.  I personally do not cover the container because I want my chicken skin to dry and have this marinade dry on the skin.  When it is time to roast, I take it out of the fridge and let it set at room temp of about 15 minutes.  There are many ways at this point to cook this, one would be to brown it skin side down in skillet and then transfer to the over to finish.  Or you can roast it in the oven, skin side up. Lastly you can throw it on the bbq.  Whichever method you choose, the internal temp for chicken should register 160 degrees F.  A test for chicken is bones moving freely in the socket and/or clear juices run from the chicken.  As far as cooking temperatures go, there are so many theories and boy have I tried them all, but I think for a chicken, I like to set the temp to 350 and the butterflied chicken should take about an hour, but everyone's ovens are different so just keep an eye on that internal temp.  
Once the chicken is out of the over, let it rest for about 15 minutes before cutting.  I like to move the chicken to a cutting board - take the roasting pan that it cooked in and add some chicken broth and let it sit on your stovetop and warm it up just a bit.  Take it off the heat or just turn the heat off. When you are cutting the chicken, put the cut chicken pieces in the broth, this will keep it moist and warm.  Once it is all cut cover the roasting pan with foil and it will keep for a bit while you finish up everything else.  At the last minute you can strain off the broth to make your gravy. 
LAST tip, save the bones, even those back bones from the beginning.  Freeze them and when you want to make some chicken stock you just need to pull them out and defrost! ENJOY! Until next time....Remember to savor the flavor or your labor!

Sunday..The end of the week or the start?

Sundays are always an interesting day.  I started this Sunday with a cup of coffee on the patio, watched the hummingbirds buzz happily in the Mexican Sage.  The real contemplation is Sunday- the end of the week or the beginning of it?  This question seems to be an inconsequential one, however I think the answer is a telling one about who you are.  It is the glass half full/half empty question.  It is the same glass/day, however it is your view or perspective of it that matters.  Today I have decided to call this the end of my week.  The day that I have the freedom to look back on the week and reflect as to its productiveness or lack thereof, to identify the items that still need to be on the "TO DO" list and be thankful for life I have had and as well of the life that is ahead of me. It is the proverbial "stop and smell the roses day" and I encourage each and every one of you to get out there and smell up a storm!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mom's Lunch Part 2

Well after 2 days of preparation I believe I pulled it off! The table was set, the weather was beautiful, no one got lost, we started with 12 but the flu took it down to 10 guests and what a bunch of gusty gals!  My mom is in her 60's, widowed and more active then ever. Card clubs, travel clubs, social events, you name it, so this was one of her groups and they do lunch once a month and always try a new restaurant.   This month it was Cafe' Debbie.  I made fresh from my garden, Bruschetta and Brie with a honey and dried cranberry topping for appetizers with baguettes. I had the menu posted there so everyone could see what they would be HOPEFULLY enjoying. 

Let me talk about prepping for this.  I am not a caterer, I have had many caterers in my kitchen, so I tried to take my cues from them, but WOW, it is hard work, especially on your own. But if I were to give advice to anyone who wanted to attempt a party like this there are things to consider.

  1. When choosing your menu, keep in mind food temperature.  If you are alone in preparation and serving, can you do it all and get everything out while still warm?
  2. Portions, how many of what do you need and count on a bit extra for flubs or requests for seconds.
  3. Anything you can do ahead, DO! I toasted my baguettes the day before and froze, only had to warm them in an oven. Marinated my lamb chops, and made all my raviolis the day before.
  4. I try to make notes to myself on timing, I usually work back from the time the event is supposed to begin and decide how long I need for each thing and write down the times I should be starting each dish.
  5. On the day of, make sure you calculate 2 important times into your time table, time for kitchen clean up  and body clean up! It is great to spend all that time making a beautiful event but if dishes are piled up and you smell, it sort of defeats the purpose!
  6. Remember little details matter! Candles, flowers, I like to try to always provide a take home memory, it's the little things that set you apart and makes the event EXTRAordinary! One simple one-the day before my party, I slice lemons very thin, lay them on parchment or silpat on a baking sheet and freeze. These perfect frozen lemon wedges are now your ice cubes in your water glasses.

Needless to say, I had great intentions to photograph each plate but didn't have the time, so here you will see the dessert plate.  I couldn't decide between chocolate and fruit so I did both, I did my famous easy brownies, which is a box mix brownies and when you take it out of the oven use a wooden dowel and poke holes in the brownies and drizzle sweetened condensed milk and then a good quality jarred caramel sauce and let cool before you cut.  It is ridiculous!  For the fruit dessert, I decided on a pineapple upside down cake.  I have a great recipe given to me by a friend that I will post in another entry, but I wanted to make them individual servings so I used a large muffin tin.  One pineapple ring fit right into the bottom of each one, it was perfect. I put some of my caramel sauce in a squeeze bottle and made it look decorated! Super Easy and looks great!

Well another successful event down and I was so relieved it went well!  On a side note, I would like to remind any and all of you out there that whoever you consider to be an older generation to yours, pay attention!  These gals that came to my house, were all my mom's generation -60's and up.  They all had great stories to share and plenty of tips to pass along.  They were a terrific bunch of women and I admire all of them for getting out there, being active, having fun and enjoying life. You know the old saying, the youth is wasted on the young, HA these women prove it all wrong! They are living their lives to the fullest, lucky ladies!  Until next time....

Friday, October 2, 2009

Throwing a luncheon for Mom

So in order to throw the perfect party, whether it be large or small, I feel it is crucial to know your audience. I always try to find out if my guests have extreme dislikes, allergies, dietary restrictions and/or strong preferences. Once I have all the information, I can start formulating my menu. After many years of doing this I have my methods to do this in an organized manor. I start out with my menu page and on the side bar I use it as my shopping list.  If my menu is complicated I will also make a time frame just so I do not loose site of what I need to do and when I need to get it done by.  There is nothing worse then serving cold food or going to all the trouble of creating a special meal just to realize you forgot that one crucial ingredient.
Creating the menu is another issue altogether.  It is all about pleasing your guests, maybe trying to come up with a theme or pick a country, you know Italian, Mexican, etc... Try to make sure the courses compliment each other or don't overlap, for instance I wouldn't do a corn chowder and then a corn side dish to the main dish, unless of course corn is your theme, then be my guest.  Finally, if the meal was heavy, consider a lighter dessert and visa versa.
Ok on to the table, I like to use the season as my guide, but there are other items I might consider as well.  Is it casual or formal?  Do you want to match the theme? Will it be a buffet or will food be on the table? I am in fall mode, trying to will it to come so my table is decorated accordingly. I tend to really dress my table, I like for my guests to come in and see the decoration.  By the time they sit to eat, the extra decorations are gone from each setting. I also like to designate seating when I have a large party. It helps to alleviate any awkwardness about who to choose to sit by and lastly I always have the menu posted, either at each individual place setting or one for the table.  I love it! I think guests are impressed at the personal touch and I usually find people like to know if they should save room for something. Lastly, I do like to make sure the guests leave with something to remember their experience.  Sometimes it is simply a special chocolate in a box, bottle of wine or a little goodie bag of assortments.  Other times we try to match the gift to the theme, a lemon theme may have a small bottle of homemade lemoncello or lemon square. A personal get together may have a group photo in a cute frame or recipe from the meal on a decorative card.
Let me close by giving a bullet list of tips and ideas-

  • A cool idea for a water glass, the day before, slice citrus fruit very thin and freeze on a sheet tray. Use as ice cubes for the water glasses.
  • Try to match a glass of wine or cocktail to compliment each course.  There are many sites to get info from, but your local wine shop will be helpful too. This can really add to the experience.
  • Always make sure you have a non alcoholic choice for drinks.
  • Pick the plates you will use for each course ahead of time.  If it is salad plates,chill them, and be ready to get the hot plates warm ahead of time.
  • Low volume background music or entertainment is very nice especially if there is a lull in the conversation, it isn't quite as quiet.
  • This sounds silly, but I am a total freak about this one.  Check your bathroom, make sure there is plenty of tp, tissue, soap and the trash is not full.  This seems so obvious but it is often overlooked
  • If butter is being used at all for bread, make sure it is room temperature.
  • Remember, you do eat with your eyes first so try to make the plate look as appetizing as possible.
  • As far as cooking goes, I like to do as much ahead of time as possible.  I chop veggies, make vinaigrettes, anything that can be done ahead of time.  A salad can be made by putting the dressing in the bottom of the serving bowl, then criss cross the salad tongs, then add the lettuce.  The tongs keep the lettuce from touching the dressing and not getting soggy. You can toss right at the last minute. I purchased small condiment bowls awhile back so I can use that to put my chopped veggies, garlic, whatever it is in there for a do ahead task.
Ok so yes, I am a freak! I love to entertain! I love to find interesting ways to do things. (I use little rock salt chunks with a scraper at the table instead of a shaker.) I love to cook and fortunately I think I do a pretty good job of it.  Although I have my moments.  A couple of years ago, I was entertaining some very important clients/friends and my in-laws.  They were wandering around the outside showing our guests the outdoors.  My son was inside, helping me put together my mini blt appetizers.  I had just lit the candles on the table and sent my son to fill the water glasses when all of the sudden he ran out of the house screaming for dad, saying there is a fire. Why he didn't stop and say this to me is still beyond me.  I ran to the table to find the whole center of my 150" table on fire with flames shooting up a couple of feet. My husband ran in the house, grabbed the fire extiguisher and was ready to blast my BEAUTIFUL TABLE! I screamed NOOOO and threw water on it and out it went. We removed the charred centerpieces and my husband, wonderful guy that he is, went outside and clipped some pretty branches to cover it all up. Our guests were so kind and understanding and we ended up with a beautiful dinner. So all this in mind this is my last suggestion. Photograph your table before your guests come.It is wonderful to remember each table you have done, that way you don't copy (unless you want to) and you see flaws that should be fixed.  Upon looking over my pictures of that table THE NEXT DAY, I noticed that some of the folliage I had on my table was right over some of my votives, hence fire!  Moral- look at the picture before the party to spot your flaws before they happen! I hope my tips help you have a great entertainment experience!

Friday, September 25, 2009


Sundays, well what can I say? It is my most and least favorite day of the week! No sporting events to attend, only ones to watch.  No work, no school, usually no homework to nag about. It is the day that belongs to each of us to make of it what we desire, but somewhere around 3:00 the realization of Monday begins to creep in. It is like being on vacation and knowing the only thing left of it is the packing and traveling. Total bummer.

In any case, on one such Sunday, I decided to do something creative.  My idea of creativity is creating something edible.  Sometimes it is my day to make chicken stock to freeze up for future uses.  When my garden is in full swing, it is making a beautiful roasted tomato sauce that I can freeze for a future use or making a pesto before the basil goes to flower and seed. On one recent Sunday, I decided that a homemade ravioli was in order. I have a really wonderful pasta dough recipe that is heavy on the eggs, but it makes a nice firm ravioli which I like, holds up very well in the end.

Pasta Dough

Makes about 1-1/2 pounds

3 cups all-purpose flour
7 large egg yolks plus one whole egg
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil or other flavored oil if desired ( I use a garlic flavored avocado oil)
1/4 cup water
Bench Flour

In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the flour, yolks, salt, oil, and 3 tablespoons of the water. Process until the dough begins to hold together. Stop the machine and pinch a piece of dough: If it feels too dry, pulse in up to 1 tablespoon more water, until the dough forms a moist ball.

Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until it forms a smooth ball. Loosely wrap in plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for up to 1 hour before using. (While it is resting, this is a good time to set up your work area and make your filling)

Filling Recipes and Directions

I have two favorites, cheese and roasted butternut squash.
Cheese Filling-
15 oz container of ricotta cheese (my favorite brand is PollyO)
1- 8oz bag of shredded mozzarella cheese
1- 8oz bag shredded Italian blend cheese
1/2 cup shredded Parmigiano Reggiano
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 heavy cream
1/4 - 1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 tbsp basil, chopped
salt and pepper
Combine all these ingredients, salt and pepper to taste.

Butternut Squash Filling
Heat oven to 425.  Take 2 butternut squash, cut down the middle, scoop out seeds, brush with vegetable oil, salt and pepper.  Place cut side down on a baking sheet and put in preheated oven.  Cook for about 30 minutes, till tender - a knife or fork can go thru with ease.  Take out till cool enough to handle.  Scoop flesh out into a food processor bowl.  Add to the bowl one 15 oz container of ricotta cheese, 1 8 oz bag of shredded mozzarella cheese, 1/2 cup shredded Parmigiano Reggiano, 1/4 - 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/4 tsp cinnamon and 1 tsp chopped sage. Process till smooth, if it seems dry add chicken stock, water or vegetable stock, a couple tbsp at a time till smooth.  Taste.  The squash should be somewhat sweet, but depending on how ripe it was it may need a tbsp or so of sugar added.

To prepare your workspace try to designate a section of counter top space for the process, in one section lay out a towel, preferably flour sack cloth, but any cloth towel will do. Lightly flour the cloth. As you make your raviolis, you will place them there to dry. You will need a small dish with one beaten egg and a pastry brush and a tablespoon for your filling, a cutter for the dough.  You can go fancy with fluted edge rollers or as simple as a tin can you took the top and bottom off of and cleaned well. I wuse a biscuit cutter. Personally, I like about a 4 inch round. You will also need to roll your dough out, either by hand or machine.  I have a machine, there are attachments for your kitchen aid mixer, or hand crank pasta machines.
Separate your dough into 4 pieces for easier management, making sure unused dough is covered in plastic wrap at all times. Take the first  of 4 and press down to make flat enough to go thru your pasta roller at the largest setting.  Roll thru and fold in half lengthwise and roll thru again, then move your setting down one size and do it again, no need to repeat, unless you are getting uneven sides or holes. Repeat till you are at the smallest setting.  Lay your sheet out and cut as many rounds as possible. Take one half of each round and put one heaping tablespoon of filling in it, take the other round and brush with egg wash. Place on top of filled side, I like to put it in my hand at this point and press the edges together, making sure to get as much excess air out as possible and sealing as well as you can. Place on your prepared cloth.  Repeat until you have used as much dough as possible.  I like to take the extra shreds of dough and let it dry, then throw in a ziplock bag into the freezer for future soup noodles. As you are preparing your raviolis, as you finish one of the 4 balls of dough, lightly dust the tops of the prepared raviolis with flour and then flip them, the idea is to let them dry a bit.

Bring the water to boil in a large pot.  When at a boil, salt the water, then add the raviolis, careful not to crowd the pot.  Reduce the heat to keep it at a gentle simmer, if it boils too hard, the raviolis will come apart and you will have empty pillows.  They should take about 5 minutes, they will start to raise to the surface.

As for toppings, the easiest thing to do is to melt butter in a skillet, throw in some fresh herbs and and then dust the top with some fresh shredded cheese.


Give this one a try! I will add a picture later, but I was reminded about how great this recipe is and how popular you will be if you make it and share!

2 bars of cream cheese
Pace Picante Salsa (whatever heat level you want) – but I do not use the chunky one I use the original one.
1- Chipotle Chile
1/2 -1 cup of shredded cheese
one bunch green onions, chopped
1 med tomato, chopped
1 avocado, chopped
opt- 1/4 cup cilantro – chopped
opt-1 jalapeno, minced
I put the cream cheese in the food processor ( it helps too if it is room temp) and blend till creamy. I add the salsa a bit at a time, I am more interested in consistency, but I will guess it is about a cup. You want it creamy and not too liquidy, although it does firm up a bit in the refrigerator so you don’t want it to be so firm that you wont be able to get a chip in there. With the processor running, add one chipotle chile and a little of the adobo sauce too( you find them in the hispanic food area called chipotle in adobo sauce). If you wanted to add a little more heat then you would add the jalapeno now too.Open your processor lid and toss in cheese, I either use the Sargento Lite Mexican Shredded cheese to lighten things up, or sometimes for a kick I use Shredded Pepper Jack and/or this Chipotle White Cheese (I have only seen this at Costco and it have a neat smoky taste without being too spicy) and the chopped green onions,. at this point you would also add the cilantro if you were using it. Place the lid back on and just pulse till mixed through. You don’t want to loose the texture of the onions and cheese. Take it out and place in your serving bowl, cover with plastic wrap. Doing this part early in the day is a good thing, gives it plenty of time to firm up and have all the flavors come together. When you are ready to serve, you can garnish with the chopped tomato and avocado. Serve with chips, cut veggies, crackers, anything dipable!
Take extra large flour tortillas, spread the dip on the tortilla about 1/4 – 1/2 inch from the edge, top with the avo and tomato. Roll the tortilla fairly tightly. Get some sturdy paper towel and just dampen, you don’t want them wet, lightly dampened. Roll the paper towel around each tortilla roll and place in a sealable plastic storage bag and place in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Just before you plan to serve, unroll the paper towels and slice the tortilla rolls about 1 inch thick. Serve cut sides showing, and you can have some extra salsa on hand for dipping too if you want.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

SImple, Delicious Lamb Chops

One of my favorite things to make-LAMB CHOPS!! They are so easy and tasty and I have gotten great reviews.

The first thing I do is to chop like a mad woman! I am so fortunate to have land to grow fresh produce on, and I have beautiful herb beds. The first thing I do is to pick fresh rosemary, sage, basil, oregano, and italian flat leaf parsley. I chop it fine, then on to the shallot and garlic, again chopped fine. Lemons are the next order of business. Zest first and then save for the juice. So all those chopped items go into a dish for marinating. To that you add the juice of 2 lemons, salt, pepper and oil. I prefer avocado oil, but any neutrual oil will do. I usually make enough to fill a canning jar and use enough to cover the chops and store the rest in the refrigerator.

I haven't been specific about amounts, and I am a do it by touch and feel, but I will say that each herb should be about 1/4 chopped. I use 2 or 3 shallots and I use one whole head of garlic. 2 lemons and about 1 1/2 - 2 cups of oil.

Now put those racks of chops in the dish you are going to marinate in and add the marinade. Rub it in really well. I like to put the chops fat side down into the marinade and then rub into the back side. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

DAY 2 -
Take your dish out up to an hour before you are going to cook, to bring to room temperature. I like to use a cast iron skillet, but any skillet will do and I heat it - SCREAMING HOT! Then put those chops fat side down, into the skillet, turn and try to get as much searing as possible. We are just trying to get a nice sear on the outside of the chops and get it heating. While you are doing this, have your oven preheating to 325 degrees. Once you get a sear on the chops put them in a roasting pan and put them in the preheated oven for about 15 - 20 minutes. Take them out, let them rest, covers with foil for about 10-15 minutes.
If I am having a dinner party I will get to this point and stop, get everything else ready and then at the last minute finish. I take the chops to a cutting board and turn back on my skillet. Cut through the chops to seperate them into individual chops. I love a little sear on the sides, so depending on how done you want them I throw them cut side down into the skillet to get a sear. If you like them rare, just down and flip and out, if you want them a little more done just keep them in the skillet a bit longer. Salt and pepper them before serving if you would like.
I have served these as appetizers, and as a main course with risotto and asapargus.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Chicken Stock

So my weekends are usually crazy, but when I get the chance I make a long simmering, rich and flavorful chicken stock! I cut up an onion, garlic head, and a shallot. Then I cut up a cup of carrots, celery and leeks, throw them in my beautiful huge stock pot. To that I add my chicken bones. Now here is the the thing, I hate waste, so during the week, I may roast some chickens or use store bought rotisserie chicken. When I do that I always save the bones, throw them in a storage bag and throw it in the freezer for stock day! Even the day I made Hoisin Wings, I threw the end pieces of the wings into a bag and added them to my pot. It is a great way to use a chicken completely. I will have roasted chicken one night, use the leftovers for chicken salad the next and then use the bones for stock that weekend.

SO once you have your veggies and chicken bones in the pot, add a couple of bay leaves, parsely stems, fresh thyme a tbsp of peppercorns and top with cold water. Bring it to just a boil, not a hard boil just a good, steady simmer and be ready to occasionally skim any gray foamy stuff off the top. Other then that thow, I just let it go! I turn it to low and let it simmer for a few hours, no stirring just skimming every once in a while.
At the end of a few hours, I taste it to make sure it has that herbal, chickeny rich flavor and I usually salt it at this point, just to taste- a bit on the weak side to leave you some room for further seasoning at the point of the end use. I ladle it into another stockpot thru my chinois to fully strain off the broth and then put it into the fridge overnight. The next day I skim the fat off, so now it is is virtually fat free! I put it into either storage bags or storage containers and put into the freezer for when I need it! It is too simple - just try it!

Hoisin Wings!!

So last Sunday was Hoisin Wing night, a favorite here. Thought I would post the process and the results.

The key to an excellent wing is, in my opinion, proper marniation time. I like to prepare my sauce early in the day so the wings can swim in the sauce for 8 hours, turning them about every couple of hours.

First you need to prepare the garlic, cause what is a great anything without garlic? I like to do a rough chop then toss a bit of kosher salt on top and mush with the side of a knive to form a paste. Once that is done I add to a large bowl and add in some chopped ginger. Sometimes I use fresh, but the jarred version works fine in this case.

Next on the agenda is the lime juice, fresh squeezed from one or two. Now it is time to add the hoisin sauce, I use one jar of my favorite brand. I believe it is about 8 ozs. which would equate to about a cup. On top of that you need chinese hot sauce, oh about a tsp to a tbsp, depending on your tolerance of heat in food. Next is Ketchup, about 3/4 cup, and on top of that, about 1/4 cup of Rice Wine Vinegar, salt and pepper and thats it! Sweet, Spicy, Tangy, Savory, TERRIFIC!

Now it is important to bathe those wings for those 8 hours. I use the party wings, which are essentially a wing that has been cut at the joint and the end of the wing removed. You can easily prepare them yourself, or buy them already done for you. Either way the smaller piece makes for a terrific bite size piece!
Once the wings fully bathed and ready to get the heat treatment, let them out of the referigerator for a bit, maybe half hour, to come to room temp. Then on the grill they go! AND CHECK IT OUT!