My New Favorite Apple

Monday, November 30, 2009

[photo from]

Have you ever heard of an Arkansas Black Apple? No, it's not something a wicked queen would give a pale, raven-haired chick who likes to hang out with short guys who mine for precious jewels. An Arkansas Black Apple is my new favorite apple.

As the name implies, it's both originally from Arkansas and the color is a deep red that turns almost black.

I think they're beautiful. And they taste even better than they look.

Contrasting this peculiar red skin is a bright yellow-white flesh that is both sweet and slightly tart in flavor. The taste is almost like combining a cherry with an apple. It's amazing.

They are hard to find, as they come into season after mid-October and are not widely grown. The good news is these are extremely hardy and can stay up to 6 months (!!!) if properly refrigerated. So if you find any at your local market, invest in a few bags full. They are amazing on their own as a snack, and I've read yield nicely into pies and applesauces.

Let's Talk Turkey

Monday, November 23, 2009

With turkey day just days away, I thought I'd post a blog with some tips for roasting a great bird.

1. Temperature Controls Everything
The biggest mistake people often make when roasting anything is keeping it at one constant temperature. A roast, no matter if beef, pork, chicken or turkey, needs to have a crispy outside and moist, tender inside. The only way to achieve this properly is with temperature. No need for ridiculous plastic bags or basting every ten seconds. The trick is in the heat. No matter how big or small your turkey is, you always need to start if off in a 450 degree preheated oven. Not 400, not 375, but 450 degrees. This higher heat will help give the turkey a nice browning to begin with on the outside, which will help lock in the juices inside, creating a moist bird. This is why frying a turkey makes such a tender bird; it's cooking from the outside in. You need to start your turkey at 450 degrees for 30 minutes, then without opening the oven door, set your oven temperature back down to 350 degrees and finish roasting your turkey until an internal thermometer reads 165-175 (about an hour and half). Obviously, the bigger your bird, the longer it will need to cook, but you must do the different temperatures if you want a moist bird with a great skin.

2. Basting
Basting the process by which you take liquid and dredge the roasting turkey during the roasting process in order to keep remoisting the skin and evenly distributing seasonings. The basting process helps give the turkey (or chicken) a nice even brown color. If you didn't baste, then half of the turkey would be golden brown and the other half would still be pale. That is not appetizing to look at. To baste, you use an aptly named baster -- a squeeze tube with which you suck up any drippings that have collected at the bottom of the roasting pan or some broth or even juice you have ready on the side. Never baste with just water -- you'll water down the flavors. Always use the turkey's own juices, chicken or turkey broth (store-bought is ok), or even apple or orange juice if using those flavors. The general rule is you want to baste every 10-15 minutes during the first 45 minutes. And make sure you baste the entire turkey, even on the sides and bottom so you can get a good overall and even browning.

3. To Stuff Or Not To Stuff?

I am not a huge fan of bread stuffing in the turkey cavity. First of all, it's not that healthy. The turkey is raw and you'll have to make sure that stuffing inside is also well cooked before you serve it to your guests. If the stuffing is not cooked all the way through, it can carry semonilla and you'll give your guests a parting gift of food poisoning, which I supposed is a good strategy if you wan to avoid cooking the dinner the following year. Assuming you don't want to get your guests sick, my vote is to skip the stuffing the turkey all together and just bake it off in a side dish seperately. Instead, use the various fruits, vegetables and herbs available to stuff the cavity of the turkey that will both flavor as well as give a wonderful smell to your turkey. Turkey is very slightly gamey in smell, which puts some people off. The use of herbs and especially citrus fruits completely takes that away. I love thinking of different combinations. My favorites are:

  • lemons, orange, whole heads of garlic cut in half crosswise, rosemary and oregano
  • apples, garlic, leeks
  • pears, thyme, marjoram, onion
  • pomegranate (whole, cut in half lengthwise), garlic, sage
  • garlic, herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano)

The general rule is if using a fruit, then make sure it's one that can hold shape -- grapes will probably disinegrate in the roasting process and be a mess to remove. If using garlic, onions, shallots or leeks, you can peel off one layer (no need for garlic) and give it a good wash and then just cut in half or thirds to fit inside. For herbs, you want to use wood-stemmed herbs that are heartier and won't burn in the roasting process.

And I like to use these same ingredients to decorate the platter when presenting the turkey. If I'm doing a citrus and herb turkey for example, I'll put some large bunches of sage and rosemary around the turkey and then some lemons or clementines or whatever I used. And obviously, discard whatever you used to stuff the turkey.

4. Gravy -- 2 Schools

Where do you come down on the gravy scale? Please don't use powdered gravy. Ever. All it is is flour, salt and msg. That's it. It has no flavor and zero nutritional value and after all the work you did to make this gorgeous turkey full of flavor, you'll kill it with this limp gravy. My School Of Thought on gravy breaks down in two main ones:

1. Gravy Made Ahead Of Time: saute onions, carrots and celery until very soft, add garlic, add herbs you're using for your turkey (thyme, rosemary, sage), salt, pepper, 1 Tbs flour, then chicken broth and let cook until reduced and thickened. If you dont' want lumpy gravy then drop it all in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Reheat the next day for turkey.


2. Gravy From The Pan: when roasting yoru turkey, it will leave some drippings. This is akin to gold and should never be thrown away. Instead, use these flavors as a base for your gravy. While the turkey is resting, pour the pan drippings through a sieve and into a small saucepan (this way it collects any big pieces of herbs or fruit that may have fallen out). Add some chicken broth until the drippings dissolve and bring to a boil. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 tsp cornstarch and 1 Tsp water until the cornstarch is dissolved. Add the cornstarch mixture to the gravy and cook on low until thickened about a minute. Taste for seasonings and add salt or pepper to taste.

In both instances we're using a thickening agent: flour or cornstarch. Main difference is constarch thickens almost immediately without taste while when using flour, you need to cook the taste of flour out for a minute or so before adding the liquid.

5. Seasoning

And finally, the flavors on top of the bird. I've seen recipes call to rub the turkey with olive oil before applying seasonging. Which is fine, but I still prefer butter. I take one whole stick and leave it out at room temperature. It needs to be pretty soft and spreadable. Then using my fingers, I massage the butter all over the bird, making sure to concentrate more butter on the breast side. The butter will also help give the turkey a nice brown color and great flavor. Then I season liberally with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and my favorite seasoning for turkey is herbs de provence. But you could make your own herb combination. Since the outside of the turkey is going to be exposed to the heat the entire time, I like using dried herbs which won't burn; if you use fresh herbs then they'll be morely likely to burn because they contain more moisture in them. Of course, your turkey seasoning can go as far as your imagination wants to go!

I hope these tips help you in your turkey roasting process. If this is the first time you're making turkey or if you're a seasoned vet, these are some trick of the trade I've found to get me a successful main event for a wonderful feasting day.

And Happy Thanksgiving!

MSG Decoded: Evrerything You Wanted To Know About (or Not) MSG

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No, it's not short for "messaging."

We've all hear of it. Nowadays, we all hear about foods not containing it, and how that's supposed to be attractive to us for some reason. Yet most of us (a) have no idea why and (b) what MSG even is. It's everywhere -- in your food, when you go out to dinner, when you buy your favorite crackers, even in the shampoo you use! Some joke it's the Addiction Ingredient manufacturers sprinkle on potato chips or your favorite cookie that's the reason why "you can't eat just one." And in part, that is true.

MSG or Monosodium Glutamate is a a sodium salt of the glutamic amino acids. Translation: it's salty and natural. For example, this amino acid is naturally found in seaweed and Japanese cuisine has been using it for a thousand years to season their food. In the early 1900s, a Japanese scientist successfully separated it out and produced it into a crystalized form, just like ordinary table or kosher salt (not sea salt...that's natural from the actual sea). MSG was then pattened, packaged, and sold as an ingredient to cook with just like we would with salt. Here's what it looks like in packaged form:

And a close up of the crystals:

As you can see, they are differently shaped than a regular salt crystal -- thinner and longer rectangles than a more square and clustered crystal of a kosher or sea salt.
MSG is also used as a flavor enhancer. In the late '90s two researchers from the University of Miami claim to have discovered another taste bud, which they named "umani." Umani means "yummy" in Japanese, and is a taste bud that seems to be quite sensitive to MSG, which gives a meat-like flavor. When this taste bud is stimulated, it stimulates your appetite so you want more. Hence, the "I can't eat just one" phenomenon.
So what's the big deal then?
Monosodium glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid in proteins. As stated above, it's found in abundance for example, in seaweed. It's also found in other plants and animal proteins. Our bodies even make its own amount of this amino acid. It makes enough to the point where our body does not require us to ingest more of it, like water or vitamins. Although naturally found in other products, Japanese scientists and manufacturers figured a way to reproduce the same amino acid from semi-non-natural forms. By using controlled bacteria in the fermentation process, they reproduced this same amino acid. The "problem" of MSG as produced this way lies in this bacterial fermentation process. It is not the natural way this amino acid is formed in our bodies or in seaweed. And there have been reports of subsequent allergies to the bacteria that are used in this fermentation process.
Hence, we hear MSG is bad.
Some of the more common allergies to MSG include more traditional allergic reactions (trouble breathing, swelling, nausea, headache, asthma symptoms, dizziness, facial pressure), stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, joint aches and pains, sleepiness and lethargy. Other reactions reported but not completely substantiated include mood swings, depression, hyperactivity, disorientation, and insomnia to name a few. Across the board the side effects affect the brain, which is why MSG is of particular concern.
There have been studies done but given that MSG is still a relatively "new" product on the market (in major circulation since the late '60s), it is difficult to tell exactly how the human body processes this manufactured amino acid, and what (if any) side effects are actually directly related to it.
Regardless of which side the experts are on, both sides agree that MSG in large quantities and repeated, consistent use is probably not a good thing. MSG in moderate usage (ordering in Chinese tonight?) is probably ok. But as a mother myself, I get a little nervous about giving it to my children at all.
Most of the time we don't even know if we're buying products with MSG in them. Here's how to tell:
  • it will actually say MSG or monosodium glutamate in the list of ingredients
  • also known as Ajinomoto, Vetsin, and Accent

It is often found:

  • in most fast food restaurants
  • in seasoning spice blends (not individual spices like ground cinnamon or dried thyme)
  • pre-prepared stocks and bouillon cubes
  • condiments like bbq sauce, salad dressing, steak sauce, worchester sauce, ketchup, mayo
  • soy sauces, tamarind (naturally present)
  • powdered seasoned items (boxed rice mixes, flavor packets like taco seasoning mix)
  • dairy products (milk solids and proteins)
  • convenience foods (chips, crackers, candies, quick meals)
  • deli meats, sausages

And is found naturally in:

  • tomatoes
  • mushrooms
  • corn
  • soybeans
  • peas
  • wheat & barley
  • beer (by way of wheat, barley, yeast)
  • yeast
  • meat
  • fish
  • milk
  • cheese (by way of milk)

MSG can also be found in shampoos, deodorants, creams, medications (both topical and ingested) and other products.

It's often sprayed on growing fruits and vegetables.

MSG is banned by law to be included in organic foods, but sometimes technically it is still present (as in the milk solids described above). Sometimes during the breakdown of yeast, MSG will form. Therefore, if a product labeled as organic includes yeast or a yeast extract, it will probably also include some amount of MSG. That's why it is also found in breads, desserts and beer.

For the most part it seems MSG as a natural element is harmless to humans. Afterall, the human race has been consuming proteins, fish, milk, cheeses, and wheat and barley (and frankly, drinking beer) for thousands of years with no major implications. I think what concerns some people is the unnatural manufacturing of it by using bacteria and the side effects that might be coming from those in elevated amounts. Let's be honest -- our ancestors weren't consuming steaks with A1 sauce, beef tacos with powdered seasoning packets, or potato chips on a regular basis. And what is of concern is how easily these MSG-laden foods are given to our children. A typical lunch for me growing up was a sandwich (deli meat, bread, mayo/mustard all have msg), a helping of chips (msg), some sort of cookie or candy for dessert (msg) and fruit drink. And that was pretty standard back then and even now. And in our culture where we are so quick to do the fast food thing or order take-out...the levels of MSG add up in one week considerably.

Here is a great link for more information if you think you do have an MSG allergy or wish to read up on food to avoid.

Sound Of Music Cinnamon Rolls

Last month during my stint with the San Clemente Stake's production of The Sound of Music, they sold cinnamon rolls at the concession during intermission. They were amazing. Although I haven't actually made the recipe yet, I tasted them and they were amazing. This recipe below yield a few very large cinnamon rolls, which would be perfect for a school bakesale or church fundraiser. Or, one hell of a holiday brunch.

Sound of Music Cinnamon Rolls
4 cups milk-water (1 can evaporated milk + water to make a total of 4 cups of liquid)
8 Tbsp self-rising yeast
1.5 cups sugar + 2 tsp, divided
8 cups bread flour, "scant" *
1 T salt
2 cups melted butter
8 eggs

cinnamon sugar (1/3 cup granulated sugar + 2 Tbs ground cinnamon)
frosting (recipe follows)

Preheat oven at 350 degrees.

Combine the evaporated milk-water liquid, yeast, and 2 tsp of sugar in a bowl and let stand until the yeast becomes "active." In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the milk-yeast liquid, 1.5 cups of sugar, bread flour, salt and eggs and mix until incorporated well, about 10 minutes, forming a sticky dough.

Let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes.

Flour a marble top, counter top, or whatever you use to roll out dough, as well as your rolling pin. Roll out the dough into a rectangle, about 1/2 inch or so thick. Brush the top of the dough with the melted butter. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar on top.

Roll the dough lengthwise into a long log. Cut into 1.5 inch pieces. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the cinnamon rolls on top, spacing out at least 2 inches (the cinnamon rolls will puff out as they cook). Bake for 13-15 minutes until soft, very lightly golden on the top and puffed out.

Remove and let to cool for 10 minutes before frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 cup butter
1 box powder sugar
4 oz cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
milk as needed to thin

Combine all of the ingredients above in the bowl of a standing mixer. Use the milk to thin the frosting out as needed and to desired consistency. Using a flat knife or frosting spatula, frost the tops of the cinnamon rolls while cool but still a little warm. Serve.

Some Notes:
*"Scant" means taking your measuring cup and lightly taking up the flour; it will not make a full cup of flour, and you don't need to level it off with your finger or knife. It's an approximation, so "1 cup scant" roughly translates to between 3/4 cup and 1 cup in terms of measuring. Try to aim to get between that amount.

Bread flour is different than all-purpose flour and it must be used for this recipe as it has levening agents added to it already. This is why you don't need to add baking powder to this recipe. You can find bread flour in the baking aisle of your grocery store.

Cinnamon-sugar is to taste. Some people like it more sugar to cinnamon ration, or conversely. The above is an average ration, so adjust with your own taste preferences. Nuts may also be added if desired. I like using finely chopped pecans or walnuts to something like this. The nuts should be mixed in with the cinnamon-sugar and added at the same time.

Cinnamon rolls can keep up to 3 days in an air-tight container. To rewarm, place in a 250 degree oven for 5-7 minutes or alternitavely, microwave for 30 seconds.

Vampire Kiss Martini

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yes, well...this week with the premiere of New Moon we're going to showcase some vampire stuff so if you're not into the vampy, then move on. Regardless, this sounds like a pretty yummy cocktail.

It's a twist on the French Martini (which, by the by, I love).

Vampire Kiss Martini
1.5 oz good vodka
1.5 oz champagne
3/4 oz chambord
red sugar for rim

Combine white granulated sugar with red food coloring. Set aside in a shallow dish. Dip the rim of your martini glass in the red sugar and set aside.

Pour vodka and half of the chambord in a martini glass. Top with champagne. Pour the remaining chambord over the back of a spoon to make it float.

Here's what it looks like:
See how by letting the remaining chambord drip on the back of the spoon you can actually get it to float on the top of the champagne? So pretty.
If you want the drink stirred together to achieve a spooky red color, then:

I don't like that so much, but I'm digging the goblet as opposed to the martini glass.
And this is why you use white sugar mixed with red food coloring:

The food coloring I think will add just enough moisture to create a damper sugar (as opposed to using just red sugar crystals), which allows it to drip along the sides like blood.
So cool!
Ok, so maybe a little too Halloween but it sounds very tasty. I think I will try it sans "blood" on Friday before the movie (!). Can't wait!

No-Cook Thanksgiving Appetizers

Let's face it, most of us have one oven and it's being taken up by the turkey on Thanksgiving. If we can get in a pie earlier that morning to bake, it's an accomplishment. But if people are coming over and especially if they're watching the game, you'll need some munchies to snack on. And the last thing you need is to be troubling yourself with Made From Scratch bites as a prelude to the main event.

Store-bought items were invented for days like this. These are some of my go-to store-bought items I use to leave out to the side for people to munch on that won't fill them up too much, will go with their cocktail or beer, and that won't require me to dirty a pan.

1. Cheese Platter
Everyone loves cheese. And a host/hostess loves a platter where the guests can help themselves. It's about what cheeses you choose and how you arrange them that matters most. Invest in cheeses that are designed to stay out at room temperature. Don't get cheeses that are better served cold. With the traditional flavors of Thanksgiving, I like to do just two cheeses out to munch one: one creamy cow and one aged goat. That's it. Some lovely green grapes to the side on the platter and water crackers and you're done without ruining people's appetites for dinner. For creamy cow cheeses, I love a classic French brie. I'm not a huge fan of the American bries, so I will pony up for the imported French one, especially for a special occasion like Thanksgiving. Should set you back between $10-15 for a good wedge that would serve 6 people. For goat, I like an aged goat cheese like a gouda goat. These are different than the soft goat cheese logs which are also very tasty, but I feel the aged goat offers a more solid texture in contrast to the creamier brie. I like simple water crackers on the side and a nice, big dramatic collection of green grapes. Don't forget to include a cheese knife so your guests can help themsleves!

2. Kettle Potato Chips
Seriously. I'm not talking about the Ruffles with Ridges concentrations of salt that go with a lifeless ranch dip. I'm talking about very thinly sliced, perfectly crispy kettle potato chips. Especially if you're planning to serve cocktails before dinner, these are a great no-cook appetizer that will not fill your guests up. I love Kettle Brand chips in salt and pepper.

3. Mixed Nuts
Another classic. The important thing for a nut selection is that they be roasted. Don't buy unroasted nuts because they are tasteless. Buy them already roasted and save yourself the trouble. We're fortunate now to have access to different "nut bars" -- much like the "olive bar", it's an area of your market that might have different kinds of salted and roasted nuts. For Thanksgiving, I'd go with something more seasonal like a mixture of pecans, almonds and pumpkin seeds for a twist.

4. Sweet Potato Chips
I like to make my own for Thanksgiving, but there are wonderful brands out there that you can buy in a bag. It's another seasonal take on a classic party appetizer that will make total sense and be an unexpected surprise.

5. Simple Cold Cuts
I don't like to do a full cold cuts platter before a huge Thanksgiving feast. Everyone inevitably gets filled up on the sliced ham and salamis and cheese and then no one enjoys the turkey! But if you're having people over at least a couple of hours in advance of the turkey getting served, you might want to consider having a very scaled down version. Ina Garten does a great salami-cucumber appetzier that would be perfect. Get a good spicy salami and an English cucumber, slice them both 1/4 inch thick, and lay them out in two straight lines on a platter, alternating between salami and cucumber. Leave a nice stack of napkins next to it and your guests can help themselves!

Deviled Eggs: An Elegant Classic

Honestly, nothing says timeless casual elegance in cooking than a nice deviled egg. They can be made with pickles, sweet relish, even caviar in the mixture and topped with a powdering for paprika, a simple finely shopped parsley, or even delicate thinly sliced smoked salmon. The variations can extend as far as your imagination (using pickled beets anyone?) but for me, my favorite is still the creamy deviled eggs I grew up with that were served for any special occasion.

This recipe is a family tradition and I'm happy to pass it along to you.

Deviled Eggs
6 extra-large eggs
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 large scallion
1/3 of a cup of good mayonnaise (recommend: Best or Hellman's) plus more for garnish
1/2 tsp fresh dill, finely chopped

Place eggs in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Set on stove and bring to a boil. When water starts boiling, turn water off and let the eggs stand in the hot water for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Take the scallion and run your knife through it lengthwise, cutting it completely in half. The run your knife through the other way, finely chopping it. Set aside.

When the eggs have bathed for 15 minutes, carefully drain the hot water from the saucepan and then let cold water run over them. This will make them easier to handle. When cool enough to touch, take each egg and carefully peel off the shell and discard. Cut each egg in half and pop out the cooked yolk into a mixing bowl. The yolk should be bright yellow and full cooked through. Reserve the white part of the egg to the side (you'll restuff them with the yolk mixture later).

Take a fork and mash the yolks in the bowl until you get very tiny pieces. Add the chopped scallion and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the mayonnaise and the dill and mix very well. Taste and adjust with seasoning as desired. Make sure you mix enough to get a smooth consistency.

To stuff the egg, spoon the yolk-scallion mixture into the cavity of the egg white where the yolk used to be, and also around the top, covering it. If you wanted a more elegant presentation, you can put the yolk mixture in a piping bag (or a plastic ziploc back) and then pipe it in with a decorative pattern. Repeat this with each egg; you could have just enough mixture to stuff each egg perfectly. At this point, you could also "decorate" the egg by carefully smoothing over a layer of mayo on top of the yolk mixture, creating the impression it is a "whole" egg again. And add a small dill leaf for garnish.

Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve. Can stand out for 4 hours (not in directly sunlight!).

Eggplant Caponata: An Appetizer To Die For

I'm extremely excited to post this blog. I'm always looking for recipes that combine seasonal ingredients, great balance of flavor, and have a rustic history about them. This recipe for eggplant caponata from Mario Batali's treatise on Italian cooking, Molto Italiano, delivers all of the above in a classic, robust, colorful KO to your tastebuds. The use of cinnamon, cocoa, and dried currants in a savory dish will blow your mind and your palate with a spicy warmth that is perfect for this colder season. I warn you will be making this every single week.

I'm loving this as an appetizer for Thanksgiving actually. Especially if you need food that can be made in advance and set out at room temperature, this is an easy appetizer that will get the palate moving for the big feast without making you slave away in the kitchen.

Eggplant Caponata
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large spanish onion, cut into 1/2 inch dice
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp pine nuts
3 Tbsp dried currants
1 Tbsp hot red pepper flakes
2 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves of 1/2 tsp dried thyme
3/4 cup basic tomato sauce
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 baguette, cut into 3/4 inch rounds and toasted

In a 10-12 inch saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the onion, garlic, pine nuts, currants, and red pepper flakes and cook until the onion is softened, 4-5 minutes. Add the eggplant, sugar, cinnamon, and cocoa and cook for 5 minutes. Add the thyme, tomato sauce, and vinegar and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. (the caponata can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. bring to room temperature before serving)

To serve, spoon the caponata onto the crostini and arrange on a platter, or put it into a bowl with the crostini on the side so your guests can help themselves.

My Notes: I substituted 1 finely diced serrano chile for the red pepper flakes because shockingly, I ran out! The point is to get the spice from somewhere, be it dried flakes or a fresh chile.

I also added 1 tsp of capers for an added salty bite which I found perfectly balanced this dish into a rounded flavor: sweet, sour, and salty all at the same time.

If you're planning to serve this at a party then I highly recommend serving in a bowl with the sliced baguettes (crostini) on the side and letting people help themselves. Don't forget to include as mall spoon or knife to help them!

When The Going Gets Rough, I...Go To Trader Joe's

Monday, November 9, 2009

One of my all-time favorite shopping experiences is at Trader Joe's.
I love them because they tend to showcase locally grown, in-season products that are at their peek. I love that they go to local producers of produce and meat, but also look to incorporate already-made items made by locals as well, to give us a fancy pesto or interesting salsa combination to supplement our meal.
Being a mom, I've found it invaluable. Although I obviously care about and prefer to do my own cooking, being a mother during a busy work week with a busy husband on a lawyer's schedule, I sometimes find myself in a panic wondering "what the hell am I gonna make for dinner tonight?" My two kids are both under 3, so it's not like I can sit there and make pasta from scratch every day, or do a 3 hour meat sauce to go with it much to my chagrin. I needed to get real. Sometimes I need something fast, something healthy, something that will taste good and that won't cost me a fortune.
Enter Trader Joe's.
We live in Aliso Viejo, or as I like to call it The Bane Of Culinary Existence. Meaning, we have two options: fast food and bad fast food. That's it. When Trader Joe's finally opened locally I quite literally jumped at the chance to go check it out and I've been a much happier, less stressed out and more financially savvy mother/wife ever since. I've tweaked my weekly recipes now to incorporate some very reliable store-bought help when I need some help in the kitchen. I was resistant to the idea at first; when I think of the phrase "store-bought" I immediately think of Sandra Lee and then barf a little in my mouth. So although growing up and knowing the goodness first hand that is TJ's, I was still a little hesitant at first. But now I love it!
Trader Joe's has excellent pizza dough for example. I've found it in wheat, plain, and even garlic-herb. The toppings options are endless. I often pick up a wheat pizza dough and either make my own pesto if basil is in season or pick up Trader Joe's ready-made pesto, some marinated fresh mozzarella, some veggies and voila! Pizza for dinner in no time with no mess in my kitchen on a Tuesday night! Or pasta...they have tons of great pastas to choose from. I swear by De Cecco for pasta (I think it's still the best) but TJ's has great brands too I'm very happy with. They have some good sauces although I still prefer my own from scratch. They have a decent enough selection of fresh, in-season fruits and veggies to choose from, salads and salad kits, a good basic cheese selection where you can find the occasional Hmmm...That Sounds Interesting type of cheese like the brie-style goat cheese I bought a few days ago. But probably my favorite part is the prepared proteins section.
I. Love. This. A Mother's Best Friend.
Chicken breasts stuffed with feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and olives. Just pop the two huge portions in the oven, roast some potatoes or do a veggie and dinner is served.
Stuffed salmon filets with cous-cous and dill. A side salad with one of their great dressings, some slivered almonds perhaps and there's a healthy Thursday night meal.
Marinated flank steak -- tacos anyone?
Pork Chops. Tri-tip roast. Pork ribs. Chipotle chicken breasts. Sausages of every kind and color and flavorings. The options are endless! The way to shop at Trader Joe's if you're a busy mom is to grab one of these "prepped" items, go match a veggie or salad to it, and your week is done!
If you live in a state that allows alcohol to be sold outside of liquor store, you might love it too. Although personally I'm too much of a snob about wine and simply can't wrap my mind around consuming a $3 bottle of red for flavor rather than using it as a vehicle to just get wasted, some people can and do and that's fine. Remember: I'm a snob. They do, however, have a pretty decent liquor section for the basics: whiskey, scotch, port, vodka, bourbon, etc. so you're sure to find something you like.
But most of all I find they are reliable...enough. The products are always good. I've never found something that's old or expired or due to expire in a day or two like I have many times at my local grocery markets. Their shelves are constantly restocked, so they are almost never out of anything. Only place it gets a little scant is around 9 pm in the bread section. Sometimes they won't have a specialty item like creme fraiche or a certain kind of squash, but I won't sweat the small things.
And who doesn't love a place that always gives out samples??? Seriously, it's the little things. I love that. My daughter Catia gets so excited to get samples and stickers too. And I like how they force their employees to be nice, smile and greet you, and ask if you need help. Honestly if I have to get an attitude from Vons or Ralph's one more time, I'm going to slap somebody. Since when did we forget the importance of customer service? God knows we pay enough in premium prices that we shouldn't get an attitude or someone who's stocking produce who doesn't know what jicama looks like (wtf?!).
They have a sense of pleasing their customers. I also love their humor. They wear horrendous faded Hawaiian shirts and ring a bell to summon an employee to open a new register instead of an obnoxious loud-speaker. They change the lables of their products sometimes to reflect the ethnicity of the food. For example, a salsa would read Trader Jose's. Chuckle.
No, Trader Joe's is reliable for products as well as an experience that at the very least won't stress you out. And for a mother of two kiddos, that's invaluable.
Bon appetite!

A Simple Fall Appetizer

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Crostini are the most virtual appetizers on the planet. It has every element one could possibly want in an easy-to-prepare bite that can be as expensive or cost effective as you need it to be. A starter for a dinner party, an easy cocktail hors d'ouvres, or a meal on their own, a version of some type is almost always on my party menu and a go-to Mercy Dinner when a busy weekday sneaks up on me.
The classic combination for a crostini is fruit, cheese, and bread. The most commonly used bread is the chiabatta:

Meaning "slipper" in Italian, it's a crusty bread with a soft, spongy middle that yields itself nicely to a crostini. The loaf is sliced, anywhere from 1/4 inch to a full inch thick depending on what you're topping it with, and is brushed lightly with a fruity olive oil before being baked in the oven for 10 minutes or even grilled. Crostini can be also done successfully using a simple French baguette, but I really do prefer the versatility of the chiabatta.

For fall flavors, I love the following classic combinations:

  • sliced apples, sharp cheddar cheese
  • sliced pears, bleu cheese (roquefort), toasted walnuts, drizzle of honey
  • fig jam, imported prosciutto

All of the above can be whipped up in literally no time.

Just cut your bread to your desired thickness and lay out the slices on a baking sheet. Brush them with olive oil and bake in a 400 degree oven 7-10 minutes. Again, you can even grill the oiled slices on a grill for a couple of minutes on the oiled side. Top each slice with one or two slices of the fruit or a good spreading of the jam, a couple of dots of the cheese or a layering of the prosciutto, and return them to the oven another five minutes until the cheese just begins to melt. Take them out and drizzle some good quality extra virgin olive oil or some honey if working with bleu, and top with any chopped nuts if desired. If you don't like walnuts, then use pecans! Almond would go great with apples and cheddar as well. If you don't have prosciutto, just use a good ham like Black Forest or just put some sharp white Irish cheddar or a good bleu cheese. The options are literally endless.

A Halloween Celebration

Monday, November 2, 2009

One of the menus in our cookbook that I'm particularly proud of is the Samhain menu. Based off of the colors and flavors of autumn at its peak, this menu both warms and satisfies all of the senses. My friends were gracious enough to stop by for a tasting so I could try these recipes out on them and get some feedback on the recipes.

We'll start with the decorations. For a party, decorating is just as important if not more important than the food itself. It doesn't have to be a hugely elaborate thing; I've done a very simple table setting with a green table cloth and a tiny vase of 3 gardenias and some white votive candles that still is one of my all-time favorite table settings. But sometimes it is fun to go all-out and go-big. But that doesn't mean spending a lot of money!

For Halloween or Samhain, I wanted to strike a visual balance between living and dead things. As the holiday was originally celebrated, it is the time of year where the veil between this living world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. It is also a time of harvest and celebration and final nourishment for the harsh winter months to come.

I went to my local Trader Joe's and found these beautiful dark purple dahlias:

And I thought they'd play off perfectly with the bright orange of pumpkins. I bought some "sugar pie" pumpkins, which are larger than those little tiny pumpkins and much smaller and therefore more table-friendly than the big carving ones. And a bonus: I can roast them after the party for a hearty pumpkin soup! I also had some fall-colored leaves that were painted with gold glitter that I intertwined on the table. You can buy lots of these kinds of leaves in lots of different colors and themes from Michael's. And then I put the dahlias in clear tall vases to add height to the table, flanking a basket of apples. The interplay between the sticks in the basket and leaves and the "live" flowers and pumpkins and apples I thought balanced out the Halloween/Samhain theme well.

I liked the idea of having the dark wood on the table exposed. I grew up always having to have a tablecloth underneath. I think not! I love having chargers act like individual table cloths. So each place setting had a simple gold charger and silverware and beige cloth napkin. Using cloth napkins as opposed to paper ones (even if they are "themed"!) adds a sense of warmth to the table and the dining experience. I'm not opposed to using paper napkins on a daily basis, but I think using cloth ones make a dinner like this more special.
And don't forget to decorate around the table too! But keep it simple! We used our fireplace as part of the celebration by keeping a fire during the whole dinner. This was our "bonfire" like the ancient Celts used to have on this special day. And atop the fireplace was a simple garland of black leaves, glass pumpkins and votive candles. That's it. The focal point in the room was still the table, but by simply decorating the room around it also gives a feeling of warmth and celebration also.

And on to the FOOD!
We started off with a Pumpkin Soup. I devised a super-simple pumpkin soup recipe that can be whipped up in no time. And you can make it the day before too! Personally I'm not a fan of bland squash soups; I like to taste the butternut squash or pumpkin, but I do like some flavor in there too. This recipe borrows some Southwestern flavors to create a very warm soup that is sure to warm your bones on a cold Halloween night. For the tasting, not to overwhelm my guinea pigs, I served the soup in cappuccino cups. With a dollop of creme fraiche to cool off the slightly spicy soup and toasted pepitas, it was a big success:

Everyone got seconds.

Next course was an Autumn Salad. Arugula tossed with a fig-balsamic dressing, dried cranberries and topped with pine-nut crusted goat cheese balls. The salad was supposed to have sliced pears as well, but my nerves got the best of me and I forgot to include them!

There's a lesson in that. I totally didn't remember the pears until the next day. And no one noticed. Everyone loved the salad. The moral of the story is not to panic...things will happen no matter how prepared or experienced you are. All you can control is to just go with the flow.

The main course for this menu was a Pork Roulade stuffed with a pear, shallot and rosemary stuffing, drizzled with a Fig-Port Reduction, and served with Roasted Root Vegetables:

The veggies I used were carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes. The color combination was perfect for Halloween and fall, and when paired with the dark fig-port sauce, it was extremely pleasing to the eye and very indicative of the black/orange colors of Halloween. The sauce was extremely simple to make (only 5 ingredients!) and the pork was simple and can be prepared the night before and just roasted before guests arrive. This menu looks impressive, but in all seriousness takes no time to prepare! This was by far the most favorite part of the dinner across the board among my tasters. And the sauce could easily transfer to a roasted chicken or even a chicken-roulade with the same stuffing if pork is not your favorite. Everyone loved the roasted root vegetables too. And some people remarked how the loved parsnips, despite it being their first time trying it!

For dessert we had a traditional Bambrack, a spiced fruit cake. I updated the traditional Irish recipe by adding mixed dried fruits (a combination of dried cherries, cranberries, golden raisins, and blueberries) and steeping them in Indian black tea, dark brown sugar, and adding candied ginger for a nice background spice. Add 3 cups of flour and 2 eggs, some spices and then bake off! Bambrack was the original Halloween "candy" that was given out to children dressed up in costumes and masks who visited neighbors on All Hallow's Eve. Although fruit cake isn't anyone's favorite dessert, this was impressed some of the guests and " the only fruitcake I'll ever eat."
I also served a simple Apple Crostada:

Flaky buttery crust, apples tossed in brandy, orange zest and brown sugar with a touch of cinnamon, topped with crystallized sugar...what's not to love? I loved this. It was a perfect ending to a hearty fall meal. And served with mulled cider that got the house smelling nice of spice (which is a trick and much less expensive than investing in those expensive fragrant candles!)
All in all, I scored high marks from my friends on the taste scale and think with a slight tweak here and there (and not forgetting to include the pears in the salad!), this is a great menu. It's wonderful all together for a festive dinner party feast, or taken apart for week night meals. If you love the soup, make a big batch and serve it with fresh bread for a hearty, warm dinner on a cold night. Looking for a side dish for a roasted chicken or even grilled steak? Try the roasted root veggies! Want a salad for lunch or brunch? Make a bigger batch of the Autumn Salad and do our Butternut Squash Ravioli recipe from our Harvest Party menu. The point is you can take out and add in as you like to create your own culinary experience. These are just our suggestions and pairings for a full one dinner. And of course, add a bottle of syrah and it's a great way to stay in on a Saturday night for a romantic date night. (winks)