Pizza Puttanesca

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pasta Puttanesca is one of my favorite pastas. Its salty and savory bites are wonderful, and yet balanced out by a good marinara sauce isn't overwhelmingly salty or unbalanced. I had some leftover pizza dough and decided to satisfy my salty craving with a pizza, using traditional puttanesca ingredients. The results were amazing, and now this is one of my favorite pizzas! Using store-bought pizza, leftover marinara sauce (or your favorite from a jar), and simple fridge-pantry ingredients makes for a tasty and easy and fast dinner. This recipe is for 4 people or 2 for a larger portion.

Pizza Puttanesca
1 container store-bought pizza dough (recommend: Whole Foods or Trader Joe's)
1/4 cup marinara sauce (your own or store-bought)
3 Tbsp pitted kalamata olives, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp capers, drained
1/2 cup sliced buffalo mozzarella (more or less, to your taste), well drained and patted very dry
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
2 Tbsp fresh chopped fresh basil OR prepared pesto (pictured)
finely grated parmesan cheese for garnish

Special equipment: parchment paper or nonstick spray for pans

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line your baking sheets with parchment paper or spray with non-stick spray

If making individual sized pizzas (shown above), then cut the dough into 4 equal parts; if making one large pizza then leave it intact. Stretch out the pizza dough with your fingers and hands, careful not to break it or tear it. Place on the baking sheet. Spoon some marinara sauce on the dough, leaving a 1/2 inch border of dough unsauced -- this will help the toppings stay on the pizza rather than spill over too much. Top with the olives, capers, cheese, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, the red pepper flakes if using, and then the basil or pesto if using. Bake in oven for 7-15 minutes, depending on your oven's strength. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Let stand 2 minutes before cutting so toppings can stop bubbling and stabilize on the pizza; if you cut it too soon they will all slide off and that will make you very sad. Serve hot!

Oven Roasted Spring Carrots

This is SO easy and it's amazing how flavorful the carrots turn out. If you're bored with just steaming or boiling your carrots and are looking for a new way to do them, try roasting them! The roasting process draws out the natural sugars in the carrots, creating a wonderful slightly crunchy caramelization on the outside that makes for a tasty presentation. I like adding some fresh herbs like thyme or oregano as well for a really springy flavor. This is an excellent, fast, cheap, and gorgeous way to serve your carrots as a side dish and perfect for your upcoming  Easter meal!

Oven Roasted Spring Carrots
2 bunches fresh carrots with tops on (for nice presentation but not required)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp fresh herbs such as thyme or oregano, leaves picked off the stems

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel the carrots, leaving the stems on if using the ones with the green tops (cut them off if using trimmed ones). Toss carrots in olive oil then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Lay out on baking sheet (you may need to use two depending on how large and how many you're making) and roast in oven until fork-tender and caramelized, about 25-30 minutes.  Cooking time will depend on side and thickness of carrots, so take that into account when roasting! Take out and sprinkle the fresh herbs on top and serve.

Week Night Yum Yum: Couscous with Broccoli, Peas, and Green Beans

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

It doesn't get any healthier or easier than this guys! On the heels of last week's post on ancient grains, here's a recipe for a super easy and fast coucous recipe that's low fat, low cal, and tastes great. My good friend Rochelle made this for us when we stayed with her on our little vacay a few weeks back, and I'm excited to pass it along here with my own spin.

Couscous with Broccoli, Peas, and Green Beans
1 box coucous (cooked according to package directions)
1 cup cooked green beans
1 cup cooked broccoli
1/2 cup cooked peas
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon -- zest and juice
2 Tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped (optional)

Toss still-warm couscous with the green beans, broccoli, and peas. Season with salt and pepper to taste, the lemon zest and juice, olive oil, and mint if using, and toss again gently. Serve.

My notes:
You can serve this hot, at room temperature, or even cold. If you don't like mint you can substitute with fresh parsley or cilantro. I like using vegetable broth with couscous instead of water because it adds more flavor and gives the couscous more depth overall, but that is totally optional for you. I also use green beans I can steam in the bag, same with broccoli and the peas or whatever leftover broccoli or peas I have from previous dinners that week. This is a great dish to use up extra veggies left over, so don't limit yourself to only green beans, broccoli, and peas; you can certainly use carrots, cauliflower, even brussels sprouts and add them in the same way. Just make sure the vegetables are more on the bite-sized end. You could even make this dish in advance. It's great in bulk for larger dinners or parties.

Better Breakfast: Veggie Omelet

Monday, March 28, 2011

Here in the Escobar Household we're trying to take advantage of spring's bounty. A lovely biproduct of this is we inadvertently eat healthy! Case in point, breakfast yesterday morning. Instead of the usual bacon, sausage, and eggs breakfast with pancakes, we opted for a lighter veggie omelet using the fresh produce my local farm delivered. The result was tasty, light, and healthy and a great way to start off the day.

A quick saute of onions, mushrooms, and garlic gave nice sweetness to the filling while asparagus and tomotoes gave nice fresh crunch. Then I added mild fresh goat cheese for a creamy and tangy finish that paired beautifully, and some fresh parsley for color and flavor. Simple salt and pepper with well beaten eggs brought the omlet home.

This recipe yielded 2 generous portions perfect for 2 people. The general rule I use is 2 eggs per person, so if you plan to make this for more people adjust accordingly with the eggs that way, and up the veggies as you see fit.

Veggie Omelet
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
5-6 cremini mushrooms, wiped clean and thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped white onion
1 clove garlic, minced
4 asparagus, tough end trimmed and cut into chunks
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
4 eggs
splash heavy cream
1 Tbsp butter
1 roma tomato, chopped small
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh mild goat cheese (recommend: Montrachet)

Special equipment: nonstick saute pan or omelet pan

Heat the olive oil in a saute pan. Add the onions and mushrooms and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Saute on medium-high heat until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and asparagus and cook another 2 minutes. Turn off heat and set aside.

Crack the eggs in a mixing bowl. Add the splash of cream and some salt and pepper to taste. Vigorously whisk the egg mixture until light and fluffy and frothy, and the color turns a pale yellow, about 2 minutes. The more air you beat inside of the eggs the lighter an omelet you'll get.

Heat the nonstick or omelet pan over medium-low heat. Add the butter and melt around. Add the egg mixture all at once. As the egg begins to cook, you'll notice it will cook from the outside-in. Gently pull in the outside cooked egg into the middle using a spatula. Keep doing this to help redistribute the cooked egg about, then gently move the pan around allowing the uncooked liquid egg to move to the outiside so that can get cooked. Do this until you've got a pretty set bottom with only the top jiggling. Once you feel the bottom is set, gently flip the omlette over so the top is now cooking on the bottom. You can flip it with the pan or if you feel more comfortable, use a large spatula to help you. Turn the heat off under the pan. Add the veggies, tomatoes, cheese, and parsley on one side of the omelet, then fold over the other side to create a half-moon shape. Gently press down the top with the spatula to help the veggies stay inside, but be careful not to break the omelet with too much force.

Serve immediately.

Gorgeous Breakfast: Best Granola EVER

I consider myself somewhat of a granola snob. I love everything about granola: the texture, the colors, the different colors and flavors, and most of all, the health factor. It's one of those Foods Done Right that bridge the sometimes huge gap between Good Tasting and Good For You. That said, there is an obscene amount of inferior granolas out there. I'm sorry to say Starbucks has a version with their otherwise tasty sour cherry yogurt, but that's another blog entirely. Boxed granolas tend to taste chalky, stale, and a little weird. I beyond prefer the taste of freshly made granola. And it's so easy to make yourself.

I've had two extraordinary granolas in my life: the first time was on a trip to Santa Barbara with The Hubsters and a then Baby Girl at a B&B in the middle of July; the other is a granola made by my good friend and cookbook partner Chandra of Foodfilosofi. And hers is most superior of all. Often I find I can improve upon even slightly most recipes. Yes, that is a bold statement so deal with it. I'm working on perfecting a pasta salad receip from Whole Foods right now. But occasionally I'll come a cross a recipe that is perfect -- needs no tweaking to balance anything out. And such is this recipe for granola. It's crunchy and chewy at the same time, the toasted coconut is wonderful, the pumpkin seeds are delightful, the orange essence is intoxicating. And she's right -- it makes your whole house smell good. Chandra originally wrote the recipe back in fall using cranberries and dried papaya and pumpkin seeds, but you can just as easily eat it in winter, spring, or summer. And the seeds and nuts are easy to swap out too; I didn't have pepitas but had sesame seeds and used those with great results too. You can use dried pineapple instead of papaya (although the color of the papaya is really hard to pass up) and even dried cherries or currants instead of cranberries. Play around with it. And I promise you: after you try this recipe you'll never buy store-bought granola again.

Coconut and Orange Granola, with Dried Papaya and Cranberries

8 cups rolled oats
3 cups coarsely chopped pecans
2 cups pepitas (aka pumpkin seeds)
1 1/2 cup dried papaya
1 1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup shredded coconut
zest of 1 orange
1/4 cup raw coconut oil
1/4 cup honey
2 tbs brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium saucepan, heat up coconut oil until it turns to liquid. This coconut oil usually comes in a jar and is solid and of a waxy consistency. Add honey and brown sugar. Mix until combined. Cool. Add vanilla. Set aside. Mix together oats, pepitas, pecans, and shredded coconut. Add orange zest, combine. Pour coconut oil mixture over the oats and mix. In batches, spread evenly over an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake until lightly toasted, approximately 10-12 minutes, tossing regularly for an even toast. Caution, it is very easy to overcook and even burn the granola. Remove from oven, cool, then add dried fruit. Delicious as a cereal, or even over vanilla ice cream.

My Notes:
My oven runs on rocket fuel so I baked my granola at 325 degrees. To ensure even cooking and prevent burning, make sure to stir the granola about occasionally with a spatula. I turned mine 3 times and it came out perfectly. You can store the baked and fully cooked granola in an air-tight container or gallon sized freezer bag at room temperature. It'll keep as long as a typical cereal, although I doubt you'll have it that long.
If you can't find coconut oil, you can use vegetable, canola, or safflower oil. I used Quaker Oats oatmeal oats. And I added a small pinch of salt as well.
Makes a wonderful and very easy first course for breakfast party served with milk or with yogurt. I'd go with a simple plain or vanilla yogurt to let the granola's beauty really stand out. And like Chandra says, this is insane over ice cream as well. Enjoy it!

Marshmallow Pops: The Kids Party Sleeper Hit

Sunday, March 27, 2011

This past weekend I finally got a chance to do a dessert table, something I've been wanting to do for a very, very long time. The occasion: Cati's 4th birthday party. The setting: our house, decked out in various shades of pink and a little blue in honor of Sleeping Beauty. Among the various candies and confections on the table (more on the dessert table as a concept later), I added these very tasty and festive (and stupidly easy to make) marshmallow pops. I stole the idea from my good friend Virginia who made them for her daughter's birthday last year.

[simply stick the marshmallow on the stick!]
Here's the basic gist: you need large marshmallows (not the minis this time), either chocolate chips or candy chips for melting, sprinkles, and a stick. You want to go for flavors and colors here, and your options are limited only to your imagination. For this party, I did simple marshmallows covered in melted chocolate, then dipped in blue sprinkles for the Make It Blue! portion of my pink and blue dessert table. You can use any chocolate you like -- dark, semi-sweet, milk, white -- just make sure you melt it properly and with care. Or, if you like color to your pop, use candy melts. These are simply sugar-based colored wafers that melt much like chocolate, so you can create colored candies. You can also flavor these with different flavor extracts if you like, so something like strawberry flavored red melts for a strawberry style pop. Unflavored, they have a mellow sweet taste that doesn't overpower the marshmallow.

[I use a double-boiler technique to melt the chocolate, but you can use the microwave just as well.]

As for your toppings, you can use any sprinkle or sanding sugar under the sun, or nuts! After you dip the marshmallows in the chocolate and then sprinkles, then you simply lay them out to set.

[you can use baking trays or I just laid out some wax paper on the counter right next to the double-boiler for a really easy production line]

I loved these pops for a few reasons:

(1) They're stupid easy to make. I, am not a baker or candy maker, and I made these very easily. They are 100% idiot proof.

(2) They are very fast, so if you're looking for party treats, school treats, bake sale item, church treat you can pull off quickly, this is your best bet.

(3) They are cheap.

(4) They feed a lot of people, so they are excellent for crowds and larger parties.

(5) They look adorable and everyone loves them.

Despite having cupcakes, candies, cake, fruit, and various other items to entice them, these were by far the biggest hit of the party among the kids (and adults!). Trajan ate 7 of them himself before we noticed. They are literally crack for kids. They are irresistible with their soft center and crunchy topping.

For more inspiration and ideas for pops, please check out this incredible website called Bakerella. She's so innovative and colorful and festive and creative and her ideas are infections. You will not resist trying out this pop-phenomenon. And with good reason: they're actually easy to make for the most party and present beautifully.

As for supplies, check out the links below:

For candy melts, click here.  You can order them from the website or buy them at Michael's or your local craft or bakery supply store.

For candy sticks, click here. I used the 8 inch sized ones and they worked beautifully because they could stand up higher in the vase. If you're planning to display them on a platter you can use the 6 inch ones or the 8 inch ones. You can also find them at Michael's or your local bakery/craft store. They are also called "lollipop sticks" or "candy sticks."

For the blue crystals sprinkles I used Wilton brand that I purchased at my local Michael's craft supply store, in the baking section. You can use any kind of sprinkle you like, but I (and everyone else) loved the crunchy texture of using a crystal-based sprinkle rather than the softer chalkier ones.

In terms of presentation, I took a square vase and wrapped blue ribbon around it, then secured it with a party circle I cut out from the pdf I ordered from TomKat Studio. Then I filled the vase with blue jellybeans up to the ribbon line. These

And now here's the recipe for the blue marshmallow pops I made for the party!

Make It Blue! Marshmallow Pops
1 bag large white marshmallows
3 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used Toll House)
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
40-50 white candy sticks
1/2 cup blue crystal sprinkles
wax paper or baking sheets for setting out

Set up a double boiler. Take a pot and fill it about 2 inches high with water. Set the pot on the heat and bring it to a boil. Place a bowl that is large enough to fit on top of the pot, but so the bottom doesn't tough the boiling water. The steam from the boiling water below is going to heat the bowl on top and melt the chocolate. This is called indirect heat. If you used direct heat then the chocolate will burn and be not usable. Add the chocolate chips and butter and let melt, using a spatula to occasionally mix and help the melting along. The butter is going to help thin out the chocolate just enough so that you can easily swirl the marshmallow inside, but not compromise the flavor or consistency once the chocolate hardens again. (If you used cream, the chocolate wouldn't harden quite enough with the sprinkles and be more of a truffle consistency which is not what you want here.)

While the chocolate melts, stick your marshmallows on the sticks. Set out your sprinkles in a small mixing bowl. Set up your baking sheets or wax paper to receive the pops.

Take one marshmallow pop and swirl it in the chocolate, shaking off access chocolate and creating an even layer as best you can. I like covering them about 3/4 of the way down so you can see some marshmallow still. If you like, you can completely cover the marshmallow or only dip the first half or very tip. Whatever you want. Then immediately from the chocolate roll and dab the marshmallow in the sprinkles. Go lightly. You'll see the sprinkles will adhere instantly to the chocolate. Then set the marshmallow pop right on top of the wax paper with the stick facing up. The wax paper will prevent the chocolate and sprinkles from sticking. You can set the pops out to cool at room temperature (it will take around 2 hours to set) or if you need them faster, transfer the pops to the refrigerator for 30 minutes to set.

Once completely set you can store the pops in gallon-sized freezer bags or tupperware for up to 3 days in advance.

Sleeping Beauty Blue Velvet Cupcakes!!!

One of the stars of the dessert table for Little Girl's Sleeping Beauty-themed birthday party were these cupcakes. Our party had a theme of "Make it pink! Make it blue!" from the scene where Fauna (the pink fairy) and Merryweather (the blue fairy) fight over what color Aurora's dress is going to be. Little Girl loves that scene and loves to play it out with me in dress up. Here I recreated it in the form of a cupcake! The cupcake itself is moist and yummy blue velvet -- it tastes just like the classic red velvet but with a deep blue hue. The frosting is simple pink vanilla buttercream that I tinted hot pink with food gel. You can certainly do the same to the traditional cream cheese frosting if you want that tang. I piped the frosting in a spray rose pattern (if you're up for it, try a larger rose pattern) to reference Briar Rose. And then I used blue crystals and pink sanding sugar with a "heavy spray," mimicking as if the fairies zapped the cupcakes with their wands to make it pink or blue!

I personally love everything about this cupcake. It tastes yummy and rich and moist, it presents and photographs amazingly, and with a few tricks of food coloring it looks a lot harder to make than they really were. I baked the cupcakes the night before and wrapped them in plastic wrap after they cooled completely. Then I tinted the frosting and refrigerated it the night before. Then the morning of the party, all I needed to do was bring the frosting up to room temperature, frost, and sprinkle. Voila! Done. And some added Aurora decor by way of these super adorable cupcake toppers (courtesy of A Paper Playground) completed the look.

Sleeping Beauty Cupcakes: Blue Velvet with Pink Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
1.5 cups vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
1 tsp white vinegar
1 Tbsp good vanilla extract
2 Tbsp royal blue gel paste food coloring
1 Tbsp purple gel paste food coloring
1.5 cups sugar
2.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1.5 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 container vanilla frosting
dab of pink gel paste food coloring
hot pink sanding sugar
blue crystal sprinkles
48 blue or pink colored cupcake liners (you're going to double up on the liners)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line 2 cupcake pans with one set of liners. Save the other 24 liners for after baking.

Combine the vegetable oil, buttermilk, eggs, vinegar, vanilla, blue, and purple food colorings in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or conversely, in a very large mixing bowl if you're using a handheld electric mixer). In another bowl, sift together the sugar, flour, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture to the buttermilk mixture and mix until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once to make sure the batter is all mixed evenly. Scoop out batter into the lined cupcake pans, filling each about 2/3 of the way full. Bake in oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. The cook time will depend on how powerful your oven is (mine are ready at exactly 14 minutes! yours can take even 30 minutes depending on your oven!). Let stand in pan for 2 minutes, then gently remove and let stand on a cooling rack. Add the second paper liner for each cupcake. You're using two liners so the colors can come out and present better; if you used just one liner then it will blend to much into the cupcake.

To frost, place frosting in a plastic piping bag fitted with desired tip. To make the spray rose effect I did, start from the middle of the cupcake and pipe center to out. Don't worry about it being one perfect swirl; in fact, go a little crooked on purpose to create the proper effect. Once you've frosted, take a large pinch of pink sprinkles in one hand and hold the cupcake over the sink in the other. Give one hard dash of the sprinkles on one half of the cupcake. Turn and repeat with the blue. I like placing the cupcakes on a tiered platter for presentation. And add your topper if using. Enjoy!

This recipe makes 24 cupcakes.

A note on food colorings....

There's a difference (HUGE) between food coloring and color gel paste. Food coloring is often diluted down; color gel paste is extremely concentrated. By extremely, I mean just dipping a toothpick into the gel paste will tint an entire container of store-bought frosting pink. So if you're using the gel paste, please start off extremely small and add gradually. Or, you'll end up using 40 containers of frosting to pale it back up!

What's The Deal With Ancient Grains?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If you've been cooking about in the last 2 or 3 years you've probably come across in recipes, TV, or eating out the phrase "ancient grains." It's almost as if "ancient" needs to precede whatever grain or carbohydrate or legume in a fancy restaurant to seem legitimate anymore. Sometimes I question it. Although I love Mr. Michael Chiarello, his "ancient grains polenta" has nothing ancient about it really. Like, we've been calling it just "polenta" for hundreds and thousands of years. so why all of a sudden add "ancient" to it?

That's what I mean.

However, there has been a trend going back to the basics with various carbohydrates, legumes, beans, and grains. And I'm loving every single minute of it. With the rise of diabetic and heart awareness in the last 10 years in particular, doctors and chefs alike have gone back in time to see how the ancients would eat. The simple idea of It Worked For Them, Why Wouldn't It Work For Us is a wonderful way to look at food, being healthy, and frankly exploring our own and other cultural heritages and histories. And you know I'm all about the latter, so I'm officially on the Ancient Grains Train.

But what the hell are they? There are many. The short answer is: anything but white flour. The longer answer I attempt to shed light on here...


Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah") is a very, very old grain that is 100% deserving of the "ancient" label. Quinoa is from the same family of beets, spinach, and tumbleweeds of all things. We eat the seeds of the plant. The originate from the Andes in South America and have been cultivated by the Incas there since around 4000 years ago who held the grain to be sacred and the most important of all the grains. In fact, it held positions in important rituals in addition to being a food for sustenance. However archaeological evidence suggests the wild consumption of quinoa to go back as far as 7000 years ago. It thrives in hardy, sandy soil and can withstand huge temperature differences from 90 degrees down below freezing.

The seeds in their raw form are beige in color and very hard. You boil the seeds in water or other liquid and they turn a reddish-brown as seen above and become considerably tender but still with a lovely al dente texture to them. They're hardy enough to withstand vinaigrettes for seasoning and won't deflate or become soggy, which makes them ideal for picnic salads or parties. You can use quinoa the same way you'd use pasta -- so light olive oil based dressings, citrus to flavor (lemon is excellent with quinoa), herbs go wonderfully -- or rice so infusing the quinoa with broths and other seasonings while boiling produces a wonderful dish. Quinoa is valued for its high protein. So if you're  vegetarian or vegan you may want to introduce quinoa into your repertoire. And even if you're not, it's a great and super healthy alternative to fattier steaks and (gasp) pork.

[photo courtesy of]

We've heard it and probably you've had it already. Teeny tiny little balls of fluff often served as a side dish instead of rice or pasta, couscous is a fabulous and healthy grain we really should incorporate more often. There are a few versions of couscous; we're most exposed to the kind above made with ground semolina wheat. The makers are also kind enough to parcook them for us, so at home we can usually make couscous in 10 minutes flat, if that.

Couscous originates in western Africa and remains a popular food item in Morocco, the Mediterranean, parts of India, the Middle East, and even in South America (by way of Spanish settlers). It can be made from wheat or pearl millet (wheat is usually the preferred version in the Mediterranean while pearl millet is for African and Indian cuisine) which is why you'll find sometimes it's very small granules or larger balls like pearls (see picture above). Sometimes the pearl millet is called Israeli Couscous to distinguish it from the much smaller and yellow colored wheat version.

Depending on how raw the couscous is you're working with, it can be steamed or boiled. Most commercially available couscous is already parsteamed, so all you have to do is boil it to reconstitute it and infuse it with flavor. If you're working with raw couscous, the process is considerably more involved: you must steam it a few times (usually 2 or 3) in a special steamer lined with cheesecloth to catch the small pieces in order to achieve the desired fluffiness couscous is known for. Different cultures prepare it different ways. You can infuse flavor by using a broth instead of plain water when boiling. Adding aromatics is a wonderful and super traditional way to prepare couscous -- I love using a combination of bay leaf, cinnamon stick, clove, and orange zest. Once the couscous is cooked you can also "dress" it with a flavored oil or vinaigrette much as you would pasta or rice. Traditional African preparations serve couscous with vegetables steamed (or boiled) with it, which also infuse the flavors. Use carrots, parsnips, celery or other root vegetables to infuse flavor. Or, do it the Moroccan and African way and make a stew of veggies and meat and serve the stew on top of the couscous like you would a thick ragu on pasta noodles. For a light vegetarian side dish, try a mix of chopped fresh herbs, scallions, tomatoes, good olive oil and lemon juice. You can even make it more of a dessert like the Egyptians and use cinnamon, clove, black pepper, rose water or orange water, and dried fruits and nuts, and honey to flavor the couscous. As you can see, the options are limited to your imagination and fridge.


Closely related to the couscous is millet. Like quinoa, it's one of those super ancient grains dating back to neolithic times in eastern India and Asia. Millet is a grain crop and considered a cereal. Eventually it made its way into Europe via the Black Sea where it was embraced by the Germans of all people, and remains a popular dish in Russia. Millet grows in drought, making it a "savior crop" that quite literally saved generations of people in times of  intense drought.

It's prepared in boiling watter, again the idea is to plump the seeds up with liquid. It's most often prepared as a sort of porridge, kind of like you'd eat grits or polenta, so that's the consistency you're looking for. It's very low calorie and fat. Millet functions a lot in the same way as wheat does, so if you have wheat allergies you may want to incorporate millet as a substitute. It contains no gluten (yay for diabetes!) but that also means you can't make bread out of it unless you combine it with glucose (i.e. carbs), so millet will give you flatbread at best. Those with thyroid issues beware -- millet has huge antithyroid properties so stay away!!!


[two kinds of barley; you pick out the grains from the long grass-like stalks]

Yes, barley. You know what it is and have had it if you've eaten bread and drunk beer. I'm beyond excited to say yes, eat bread and drink beer, it's good for you (!!!!). Despite the incredible amount of tasty beers (and bread) that have come out of Europe, barley in fact is not indigenous to Europe. Wha?? Yes, it's true. It's actually from the east. I'm talking Asian east like Korea and Middle East like Syria and Egypt. Yes, it's true. And the Egyptians are credited for making the first real beers. But that's another posting entirely.

Despite providing a tasty alcoholic beverage, barley also provides wonderful nutritional value for foods. It's heavy on amino acids and dramatically brings down blood sugar. So diabetic peeps - start munching on barley grains! You can eat the grains toasted by themselves -- they are wonderfully crunchy a lot like Grape Nuts cereal and have a very pleasant sweetness to them. They taste like "beer seeds" if such a thing could exist. The grains can also be baked into breads or throw into soups where they plump up to wonderfully tender little nuggets of yum. Or, make beer.


["spelt berries": left = chucked; right = unshucked]

From the area north of the Black Sea, spelt is a grain used for thousands of years. Earliest known going as far back as 4000 BC. Ya, that's a while ago. The grain made its way into central and western Europe where it surged in popularity during the Middle Ages. Most of our recipes we know today using spelt will come from that time period, courtesy of England and Germany mostly. Spelt is high in protein and other vitamins, but interestingly also contains a little fat and gluten making it a wonderful sustainable crop during those times. Have you always wondered how in movies all they seem to do is eat porridge or eat bread and live fine? Spelt is why -- it has everything in it to sustain them so it was extremely popular among the poor class as well.

Germans eat the spelt like a cereal, or you can grind the grains finely into a spelt flour and make bread.  However, people allergic to wheat can definitely use spelt instead.


It just sounds so cool, doesn't it? Kamut is another very old grain by way of Egypt. It was found in ancient tombs of the pharoahs, and is said to have been brought aboard Noah's Ark. It's also called Khorasan Wheat, after the region in Khorasan, Iran where it is widely cultivated. Full of protein and many amino acids and vitamins, it's extremely healthy and a wonderful option if you're watching your weight.

It has a nice buttery flavor and good firm texture when cooked. Like the other grains above, it's best to cook kamut in water or broth to make it nice and tender. The "berries" can be ground up and used as a flour, but kamut has no leavening on its own so it must be combined with other grains and leavening agents to produce bread. A popular way to cook kamut is like you would oatmeal: a ratio of 1:3 kamut to liquid and cooking until very tender, then topping with a little milk or cream. Kamut is a bit tougher than other grains, so be sure to invest the proper amount of liquid and time to get it just right.

Now that you know about some of these readily available ancient grains, I encourage you to pick some up and start experimenting with recipes. You can never go wrong adding fresh herbs, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and maybe some chopped tomatoe or cucumber or even dried fruits to create wonderful dishes. Eat them on their own or use them as a healthy side dish for saucy stews, briskets, and grilled meats and fish.

Week Night Yum Yum: California Cobb Salad

I made this salad on the fly last night using lots of the fresh produce my local farm delivered me this week. It was fun, super colorful and very light and refreshing and I loved it. So did The Hubsters. I realized halfway through making this I was making a spin on the Cobb Salad, but using California ingredients. It starts off traditional with romaine lettuce (I add spinach also for health factor), onions, avocados, and then I go from there: chicken or turkey is swapped out for super tender shrimp infused with subtle coriander and lemon; tomatoes are swapped for fresh orange; artichokes take the place of the egg; goat cheese steps in for bleu; and instead of bacon (which I do love by the way), I use finely chopped almonds that I toast to get that crunchy factor in the salad. I noticed that the artichokes, avocados, oranges, and almonds were all California-grown ingredients, so I named it the California Cobb.

I love a traditional Cobb Salad. Seriously -- it's one of my all time favorite salads ever -- but I do love this lighter and healthier version as well. And I know you will too.

California Cobb Salad:
1.5 lbs raw extra large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 bay leaves
1 lemon cut in half
1 Tbsp coriander seeds
1 head romaine lettuce or other green leafy lettuce
3 cups baby spinach
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced (or to taste)
3 scallions, ends trimmed and cut in chunks on the diagonal
1 cup cilantro leaves, whole and packed loosely
2 Tbsp fresh mint, roughly chopped
1/2 cup chopped artichoke hearts (in water or oil), drained
1 mango, peeled and diced
1 orange, peeled and segmented
2-3 Haas avocados, diced
1/3 cup almonds, chopped small and toasted*
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
fresh goat cheese

First, cook the shrimp. Fill a medium sized pot with water and add the lemon halves, bay leaves, and coriander to the water. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, season the water liberally with salt, about 2 Tbsp worth. Add the shrimp all at once and cook until they turn bright pink and are firm, about 3 minutes. Cooking time will depend on size of shrimp.

While shrimp cook, assemble your salad. Place the romaine, spinach, red onion, scallions, cilantro, mint, artichoke hearts, mango, orange, avocados, and almonds in a large mixing bowl. Season the salad with salt and pepper to taste. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and garlic. Add the shrimp to the salad still warm and pour the vinaigrette over. Toss gently with two spoons (using tongs will bruise the spinach too much) and top with fresh goat cheese to taste. Serve immediately.

*To toast almonds, place them in a shallow pan and heat over medium heat. The heat will draw out the natural oils in the almonds and that oil is what will toast them. You'll start to hear the almonds "crack" -- this means the oil is getting drawn out and toasting them and is a good thing. Watch carefully not to burn. Transfer nuts to another bowl or dish and do not leave in the pan to cool; they will continue to cook and burn if you do.

Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Sunchokes

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

[photo courtesy of The Master Gardeners. For more information about growing your own sunchokes, check out their fantastic page here.]

No, they don't choke the sun in some bizarre cosmic way. Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem Artichokes are wonderful tuberous vegetable native to northern North America prided for their light and lightly sweet flavor and ability to be cooked in various ways. They're also really cheap.

Their appearance is a lot like ginger root.

[ginger root]

[cross section of ginger root]
But they taste vastly different. Whereas the sunchoke looks an awful lot like the ginger root on the outside, it couldn't be further away in color and taste on the inside. The ginger root has a pale-dark yellow flesh, and the taste is sharply spicy, extremely aromatic, and almost burning to the palate when cut just fresh. The sunchoke on the other hand is white and crisp in texture, like a potato, but the taste is like a light artichoke. Hence part of the name. They taste slightly sweet, have a mild bright flavor, and can take on other flavor profiles. They roast just beautifully and caramelize quite well, which only intensifies their underlying sweetness.

The rest of the name, the "sun" part, comes from the flower that grows from the root: bright yellow daisy-like flowers reminiscent of the gargantuan sunflower.

The sunchoke that we eat is actually the root of this flower, and can be grown easily in the right environment for both aesthetic and culinary uses.

Although sometimes referred by its other name, Jerusalem Artichoke, the root has nothing to do with Jerusalem. And it's a little up for debate as to how that came about. Some say it's from an Italian who called them girasola (which people misinterpreted to "Jerusalemola" and then to "Jerusalem") while others say it's another misinterpreation of the Netherlands city Ter Neusen where sunchokes were widely introduced into Europe (so "Ter Neusen" sounds like "Jer-usel" which is of course "Jer-usalem"). To avoid this confusion, many in the cooking and gardening world refer to it simply as sunchoke or sunroots. 

The sunshoke is a long-standing ingredient in North American Native American cuisine. When Sir Walter Raleigh of England landed in Virginia in the late 1500s, he brought back sunchokes in addition to potatoes and various other native foods to England. And thus they were first introduced to Europe. The French took a liking to the tubers and it is their cuisine that experimented the most with them. Samuel de Champlain brought them back to France in the early 1600s and they became known as the "Canada Potato" or "French Potato." In fact, the French named the sunchokes topinambour which means "poor uneducated person" in French, and it is from there we get the random German liquor called Topinambur which is made from sunchokes. Despite its deliciousness, the sunchoke took a while to catch on in Europe. A rumor started that eating sunchokes would lead to leprosy, because the way the tubers are shaped is very similar to the fingers of a person suffering from leprosy.

Well eventually they caught on. And today sunchokes are often consumed as a substitute for potatoes because they can be prepared in the same exact ways a potato can be. It's a wonderful ingredient if you're watching your weight with low-carb or are diabetic.

An unfortunate side effect to consuming sunchokes however is insane gas. I mean epic, can power cars type of gas. The problem is the unilin. Unilin is a polysaccharide, and sometimes our bodies have difficulty digesting polysaccharides. Some polysaccharide (aka unilin) veggies include jicama, garlic, onions, and sunchokes. You won't die, but you'll get very painful bloating and horrible gas if your body is sensitive to these. But there is hope. Eating these foods in very small amounts, gradually increasing the amount and frequency will "teach" your body to develop a tolerance for them. Also, the inulin is strongest when raw, so if you cook the hell out of these veggies your reactions should be more minimal. This helps explain why someone who's allergic to onions for example can actually eat a bowl of pasta with marinara sauce; the onions have been cooking and stewing for an hour at least, so the inulin has been all but broken down completely. So don't be detered in trying these guys out.

In terms of cooking, the sunchoke functions a lot like a potato. You can boil them, roast them, steam them, fry them, puree them, or even eat them raw although raw is often served very thinly sliced. The underlying sugars and sweetness again give to wonderful caramelization, so if you want to experience the truest taste of the sunchoke in my opinion it's best to roast them as their natural flavor like all ingredients can get boiled out when just boiling.

Here's a really simple recipe for a soup using sunchokes and asparagus together, which I think is an incredible flavor. Roasting the garlic with the unchokes continues the underlying sweet flavor of this soup which pairs beautifully with some savory-spiced salmon on top.

Sunchoke and Asparagus Soup with Flaked Salmon
6 large sunchokes, scrubbed well*
6 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (for soup) + 2 Tbsp (for roasting), divided
1/2 white onion
1 bunch asparagus ends**
2-3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
fresh thyme to taste
cooked salmon for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the sunchokes and garlic in the 2 Tbsp of olive oil and season with a small pinch of salt and pepper. Place in oven and roast until very tender, about 30-40 minutes. Watch it carefully so as not to burn, but you do want some good caramelization (i.e. golden brownness) because that's the flavor of this dish.

While they roast, prepare the base of the soup. Heat the remaining 2 Tbsp of olive oil in a pot and add the onions. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and saute on medium-low heat until onions are very soft and turn translucent. Set aside.

Once the sunchokes and garlic are roasted, transfer them and the sauteed onions along with any oil from both to a food processor or blender and process until smooth and thick.*** Return the puree to the pot and heat on low. Add the stock and mix in to combine. Add the fresh thyme and cook for 10 minutes so flavors can combine and infuse with each other. To serve, ladle soup out and top with blanched asparagus tips and flaked cooked salmon.

*To help with the digestion you can peel the sunchokes. Otherwise, their skin is very tender and therefor no need to peel when eating.

**This is a great way to use up those asparagus ends we always cut off because they're so tough to eat. However, they give wonderful flavor, so they're perfect to add to soups or stocks to infuse, then simply remove after cooking and discard.

***If you have an immersion blender you can throw all the ingredients in the pot and puree it all at once together with the immersion blender.

Spring Orzo with Artichokes, Peas, and Scallions

This quick pasta dish comes together in 10 minutes flat -- literally the time it takes to cook the pasta. I love using orzo because it's small and tender, and yields itself nicely to a simple olive oil garlic sauce. You can serve this pasta hot or frankly even better, cold as a pasta salad. And don't forget the mounds of freshly grated romano cheese!

This recipe makes large bowls for 4 people, or appetizer portions for 8. If you're having a party, double it all and serve it at room temperature as a pasta salad for a cheap and delicious way to feed a large crowd!

Spring Orzo with Artichokes, Peas, and Scallions
1/2 lb (i.e., half a box) orzo pasta
1 cup artichoke hearts (in water or oil), drained and chopped into bite-sized pieces
4 scallions, washed and ends trimmed off and then cut into thin slices
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked off the stems
1 lemon, zest and juice
1 cup (more more to taste) finely grated romano cheese
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (optional)

Bring a pot of cold water to a boil. Once boiling add a good amount of salt (about 1/8 cup) then add the orzo and cook 10 minutes or according to package directions. Once the orzo is cooked, drain very well and add to a large mixing bowl. Add the artichokes, scallions, peas, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

In a small pan, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute to cook out the raw pungent flavor of the garlic; conversely, if you want the super garlic taste just add the garlic raw and oil cold to the orzo. Add the cooked warm garlic and all the oil to the orzo and veggies, right on top. Add the lemon zest and juice, thyme, and most of the romano cheese, saving some to sprinkle on top. Mix it all to combine and coat well. Top with the rest of the romano cheese and the pine nuts if you're using and serve hot, at room temperature, or cold.

Date Night: Grilled Lemon Chicken with Ancient Grains and Parsley-Artichoke Salad

Friday, March 18, 2011

Usually I post the "Date Night" series on Mondays after The Hubsters and I have our date on Fridays, but today I'm doing it a little earlier. Here's a fabulous and extremely healthy and low-fat dinner using a simple lemon and herb marinade for the chicken that you could even marinade the day before. The grains use a combination of Israeli cous cous (which is my new obsession), orzo, and red quinoi for health and amazing texture, and the parsley-artichoke salad on top I'm using as a sort of chunky gremolata in this dish. When we ate it I couldn't help raving about how incredibly flavorful everything was. It's one of those "perfect dishes" -- flavor, texture, and everything made sense with each other. I'm extremely excited to share this recipe with you all. Please enjoy it!

For 2 people, but can be easily doubled or tripled for a dinner party menu.

Grilled Lemon Chicken with Ancient Grains and Parsley-Artichoke Salad
2 chicken breasts
2 lemons
4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed (not chopped or minced!)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp dried thyme OR 8 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tsp dried oregano OR 4 sprigs fresh oregano
1/4 cup olive oil

2 cups chicken broth
1.5 cups ancient grains blend*
1 Tbsp olive oil

1 recipe parsley-artichoke salad (see link to recipe above)

Clean the chicken breasts and trim. Pat dry with paper towels and place in a plastic freezer/gallon sized bag. Season with salt and pepper to taste (I used about 3/4 tsp salt; 1/2 tsp pepper), add the garlic, herbs and olive oil. Take one lemon and slice it into 1/4" rounds, and add those in with the chicken. Take the other lemon and cut it in half, then squeeze the juice into the bag. Close the bag and using your hands, massage the marinade into the chicken. Let stand in fridge at bare minimum 2 hours, preferably 6 hours to overnight so flavors can develop nicely. Massage the bag occasionally while it stays in the fridge.

When ready to grill, take the chicken out about 15 minutes before you're ready to grill it to bring it up to room temperature. This will ensure even cooking and gorgeous grill marks. Grill on preheated high grill until cooked through, about 8 minutes total time depending on thickness of chicken. Let stand 3 minutes at least before cutting so juices can redistribute, then slice against the grain for presentation.

To make the ancient grains, place the broth in a pot and bring up to a boil. Add the grains and oil, and bring back up to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and the grains are tender but still al dente. For softer grains, add an additional 1/2 cup of broth. Fluff with fork and serve hot or at room temperature.

To plate, add a generous helping of the grains to the middle of the plate. Top with sliced chicken and then the parsley salad on top.

*You can use a pre-mixed ancient grain mix. Trader Joe's makes an excellent version. Or, simply go to your local natural foods store and make your own! Here's the ratio:

Israeli cous cous: yellow lentils: orzo pasta (colored if you can find it!): red quinoi

Spring In A Second: Parsley-Artichoke Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

Often when we hear the word "salad" we think of romaine, butter, and other traditional leaf lettuces. Occasionally we'll venture into the bitter leafs like frisee or radicchio, but rarely do we look to herbs like cilantro or parsley!

Yes, even parsley could make the most delicious salad. Too often we ignore it and push it to the side of our minds and literally on our plate as a simple, lonely garnish. But in fact, parsley not only gives wonderful green color to a dish but also can be the start of the show with its intense bright lemony flavor that pairs beautifully with other foods like artichokes, citrus, tomatoes, and obviously any meat or fish. Middle Eastern cuisine figured out the deliciousness of parsley and made it the star in its famous salad, tabbouleh. I took a cue from that salad and composed this simple but extremely flavorful salad using parsley as my main green, diced red onion, chopped artichoke hearts, and finished it off with toasted slivered almonds and a little feta cheese. A simple lemon vinaigrette brought it all together to a wonderfully refreshing salad that's wonderful on its own or with a dish. All the ingredients just scream spring, and will brighten up any colder rainy day until summer comes.

And if you're fasting for Lent this is perfect for a Wednesday or Friday lunch!


Parsley-Artichoke Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette
2 bunches parsley, washed and stems removed
1/2 red onion, diced very small
1 can artichoke hearts in water, drained and chopped
3 Tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon - juice
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbsp toasted slivered almonds*
goat cheese (optional)

Place the parsley, onion, and artichoke hearts in a mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the olive oil and lemon juice and lightly toss using a spoon. Add the almonds and goat cheese if using and toss lightly to combine. Serve.

*To toast the almonds: place raw almonds in a shallow pan (with no oil!) and heat under medium heat. You'll smell the nuts before they start to cook, so pay attention and once you smell it, start stirring. Cook until almonds are toasted, golden brown, stirring often to prevent burning. Transfer to a bowl or dish immediately to prevent burning (if you leave them in the pan, they will continue to cook and burn). Set aside or use immediately. Can be toasted in advance and kept in an air-tight container at room temperature for up to a week.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!: Ballynahinch Castle Salmon

Thursday, March 17, 2011

We honeymoond in Ireland and it was then I fell in love with the most beautiful country I'd ever seen. At the end of our trip, we stayed at the Ballynahinch Castle. If you're planning a trip in the future, I highly recommend staying there. Set in the wilderness of Connemara, Co. Galway, the castle is actually an estate converted into a 4-star hotel that boasts one of Ireland's finest salmon rivers. Indeed, you could go fishing right on the estate property if you plan your visit during salmon season.

Well, long story short we had an amazing meal that night at the castle including one made with salmon (of course!). The original dish I remember had cabbage, which unfortunately I can't eat anymore (stupid thyroid) so I've adapted it with an easier to prepare mashed potatoes. The salmon is pan-roasted for a perfect crisp crust and moist and tender inside. I like using skin on for this recipe or when I pan-roast in general because it gives the fish incredible flavor and texture. I also blanch the asparagus right in the same pot as the potatoes the last 4 minutes of cooking.

I love this recipe. It's using lots of spring ingredients like chives, dill, asparagus, and shallots. I love that it's very elegent and presents extremely well, and comes to gether quite quickly. You do have to keep your wits about you though, as working with butter means it can burn quickly so pay attention! And I love that it's elegent and delicious Irish food. Cheers!

This recipe will serve 4 people.

Ballynahinch Castle Salmon with Asparagus and Chive Mashed Potatoes
4 (7-8 oz) portions salmon -- boned with skin on
celtic sea salt (or kosher)
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp unsalted butter + 2 Tbsp olive oil

for the mashed potatoes:
2 lbs yukon gold or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
kosher salt
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
2-3 Tbsp heavy cream or half n half
2 Tbsp finely chopped chives

for the asparagus:
1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed off and washed

for the buerre blanc sauce:
1 shallot, minced
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
celtic sea salt (or kosher)
1/4 cup dry white wine
fresh dill

Place potatoes in a pot with cold water and a good amount of salt (2-3 Tbsp). Bring potatoes to a boil and cook until fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Cook time will vary with how large or small you cut your potatoes. About 4-5 minutes away from being perfectly fork tender, add the asparagus to cook. Take asparagus out and set aside; drain the potatoes then return the drained potatoes to the same pot. Taste one and add more salt if needed. Add butter and mash until crumble. Switch to a wooden spoon and start stirring the potatoes quickly -- this is called "whipping" them. Add the cream to taste (more cream will give you thinner mashed poatoes; less will give you thicker ones) and add chives. Mix to combine, cover, and set aside.

While the potatoes are cooking make the salmon. Season the salmon flesh side with salt and pepper (no need to season the skin side). Heat a pan on high heat. Add the butter and oil together at the same time (the butter is for flavor; the oil is so the butter doesn't burn) and then add your salmon pieces flesh-side down (so the skin is up). Cook for 3 minutes or until a nice crust forms. Flip the salmon and finish cooking it skin-side down this time another 2-3 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove and set on a plate with paper towels to drain excess oil and fat.

While the salmon cooks, make the buerre blanc sauce. Heat the butter in a saute pan. Add the shallots and season with a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Cook 3-4 minutes then add your wine and dill. Cook for 2 minutes. Set aside when done.

To assemble the dish, spoon out a generous portion of mashed potatoes in the middle of a plate. Add 4-5 asparagus all facing the same direction right on top. Top the asparagus with the salmon. Drizzle some of the buerre blanc sauce around the plate and a little on top of the salmon if desired. Top with a small sprig of fresh dill and serve.

My Notes:
It happens, even to me: if your salmon comes out undercooked, just pop it in the microwave for 30 seconds to 1 minute. It won't compromise the crispiness so don't worry about it.

If you want to substitute the wine with a non-alcoholic version, simply use chicken broth instead of the wine; same amount.

Nothing in this dish can be made ahead of time, except the asparagus. So make sure you prep all your ingredients before you start cooking: mince your shallots and herbs before the potatoes even set to boil. This way you can pay attention to the cooking rather than cutting up a garnish while the butter burns!

Date Night: Spring Salad with Goat Cheese Crostini

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

This is a great starter for a spring time dinner party or adding a few more slices of crostini can make a light but filling dinner. Use medium-mild goat cheese for this. I like Montrachet for best results -- it has the perfect balance of creamy and tangy without overpowering the rest of the salad. This salad is completely vegetarian, but if you like you can add some pancetta bits. As for the crostini, I love using a roasted garlic chiabatta bread. You can find it in the bakery section of your super market; it's a pretty available brand now. If not, you can use a plain chiabatta bread and right out of the broiler, rub the slices with a fresh garlic clove for a more pungent garlic flavor. For a toned down version, spread the slices with roasted garlic (get recipe here) and then add your goat cheese right on top. Enjoy this light, springy salad! And a glass of Montrachet wine will go beautifully.

Spring Salad with Goat Cheese Crostini
1 package spring mix blend (leaf lettuces: baby spinach, baby radicchio, red and green lettuce, etc.)
1 cup mache lettuce (aka "lamb's lettuce" or "lamb ear lettuce")
1 bunch fresh dill, stems removed (or to taste)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil for the vinaigrette + 2 Tbsp for crostini
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
juice of half of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
mild-medium goat cheese (recommend: Montrachet)
1/2 loaf roasted garlic ciabatta bread

Preheat your broiler to high.

Wash the lettuces and spin dry, then pat dry with paper towels if necessary. Place in a large bowl. Add the dill right on top and season with salt and pepper to taste. In a separate bowl, make the vinaigrette. Combine the 1/4 cup olive oil, mustard, lemon juice, shallots, garlic, and fresh thyme and whisk to combine and until thickened. The mustard will help emulsify the vinaigrette, making it stick together and become thick. Set aside and prepare your crostini.

Slice desired amount of the chiabatta bread 1/4"-1/2" thick. Brush one side of the slices with the 2 Tbsp of olive oil, and set out oil side-up on a baking sheet. Set under broiler and cook until toasted and golden brown. Watch carefully so they don't burn! It will take about 3 minutes or so! Remove and if using fresh garlic, rub the clove immediately on the toasted side of the bread. Spread some goat cheese and sprinkle with more freshly ground black pepper if desired on top and set aside.

Pour the vinaigrette on top of the salad and using two large spoons, lightly toss the salad, careful not to bruise the very tender leaves. Portion out on plates or bowl and add 2-3 slices of goat cheese crostini. Serve with a cold glass of Montrachet or other dry white wine.

The Lenten Tuna

Monday, March 14, 2011

We're in the dead of Lent right now and for us that means Tuna Sandwiches. Various restrictions abound for the Great Fast, and by this time I'm already exhausted of ideas and frankly getting a little pissy about not being able to drink coffee or eat chocolate or what ever I gave up this time. This year, as per my friend Virginia's recommendation, I gave up gouda. And so far I've been sticking to it.

But back to the tuna...

The Tuna Salad is one of those classic American household staples that frankly we all should know how to do. There are different variations: with mayo and mustard or plain mayo; pickles inside or on the side; light or dark meat tuna. Either way you do it, it's a healthier alternative for a sandwich and can be tasty, economical, and fill your Friday lunchboxes for Lent or otherwise.

Here's my super basic recipe. I add a little cayenne pepper for some color and kick. Also, the amount of mayo you use will depend on how dry or wet you want your salad. Adjust accordingly. And my favorite bread to use is a good honey wheat bread -- the sweetness in the honey balances out the savory tuna perfectly.

Tuna Sandwich:
28 oz canned tuna in water (light or dark meat, chunk or not..up to you), drained well
2 celery stalks, ends trimmed and finely chopped
3 scallions, ends trimmed and finely sliced
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper or to taste
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1/2-3/4 cup good mayo (to taste)
honey wheat bread
sliced tomatoes, lettuce, pickle for garnish (optional)

Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix to combine. Serve as is or spoon tuna salad on sandwich bread (untoasted). Add tomatoes and lettuce if using, then top with another slice of bread. Slice in half and serve with pickle on the side.

Holy Sangria! A Perfect Party

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Over a year ago my good friend Alison and friends had a potluck party. But this was not your ordinary, casserole-themed potluck. This, dear friends, was a sangria potluck. Everyone was asked to bring a sangria punch in appropriate beverage dispenser or pitcher, and some savory food to match it. Then everyone tasted and nibbled and ultimately voted on the best sangria, the winner walking home with a prize.


I thought this was such a fun way to do a dinner party or even birthday party. Had I more friends up here in the Pac Northwest, I'd for sure be doing this in June for myself! 

The point of this party is to be easy and colorful and creative. You don't need anything fancy or extraordinary to pull it off. And it's fun to name your concoction as well, like this one below called "Greek God."

Be really creative with your sangrias. Although most of us know the version using red wine, white sangrias using white wines are also extremely tasty and refreshing. This one below uses a drier white wine like pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, and then using a melon baller, cut out balls from canteloupe and green melon.

It makes a very pretty and delicate presentation. You could of course use any melon here: watermelon, Israeli melon, or combination of all of them. Try to research the wine you're using and bring out the natural flavors or scents in it. Pears, apples, and other stone fruits like peaches or nectarines would work beautifully in a white sangria as well, and if you did it right you could probably use a melon baller on those fruits as well.

I love that the people at this party used beverage dispensers for their sangrias. Not only is it a pretty presentation, it's also easy to use and easy to transport.

If you plan to do the voting for the best sangria at the party, simply lay out some plastic cups and napkins with some sciccors, tape, and pens for your guests. Ask them to write the name of their sangria on their cup and place it in front of their sangria. Display an example like they did here below.

And don't forget the food!

I love that everyone was asked to bring a sangria and a food item. It doesn't have to be terribly difficult or even that authentic (hello burgers and fries from someone!). Dips, salsas, sandwiches, fried foods, anything will work for this. I recommend you keep it finger-food style for easy consumption, especially when you'll have guests with a drink in one hand. Adding food that requires utensils makes it hard and now they need two hands to hold the plate and eat with the fork. Even worse if they have to cut something. So keep it with dips, sandwiches, friend finger foods, bite-sized items like sliders and fries or wings.

Here's a great basic white wine sangria recipe from famed Spanish shef Jose Andres to get you started, and a classic Spanish tapas recipe for garlic shrimp to go with it. Do some research and check out The Enchanted Spoon for more sangria recipes andperfect appetizers to do for your next Sangria Party!

White Wine Sangria   by Jose Andres
1 cup chopped mixed fresh fruits: strawberries, peaches, white grapes

1 bottle of Spanish cava or other dry sparkling wine
¼ cup brandy
¼ cup white grape juice
¼ cup Licor 43 or any vanilla flavored liqueur
1 teaspoons sugar
1 small fresh mint sprig

Fill a glass pitcher halfway with ice and add the chopped fruits. Tilt the pitcher and pour the cava very slowly down the side; this will help retain the bubbles. In another pitcher or bowl with spout, combine the brandy, Licor 43, white grape juice, and sugar, then pour the mixture into the sparkling wine and fruit. Give a quick stir and add the mint sprig. When serving, make sure each glass gets some ice and fruits.

Gambas al Ajillo  "Shrimp with Garlic"     by Jose Andres

1/2 cup Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
1 head garlic, cloves removed and roughly chopped
2.5 lbs large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 guindilla chili pepper (or your favorite dried chili pepper) to taste
splash of brandy
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
Salt to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over a medium-high heat flame. Add the garlic and sauté until browned, about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp and the chili pepper. Cook for 2 minutes.Turn the shrimp over and sauté for another minute.Pour in the brandy and cook for another minute. Sprinkle with the parsley, add salt to taste, and serve.

*This will serve about 10 people for a party.